By Ashli Watts
Over the last several months, in the midst of COVID-19 and strict stay-at-home orders, many Americans have increasingly shifted their lives online. Kentuckians have certainly had to grasp what the “new normal” means for their families and businesses.
While our internet networks have kept up with the increased demand thanks to decades of private investment, many Kentuckians still lack sufficient access to reliable broadband. And now the threat of a second COVID-19 wave should be motive enough for leaders to make broadband a priority and lay out a plan that will ensure every American can access a reliable internet connection. Our post-pandemic economic recovery depends on it.
The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 18 million Americans lack access to broadband—a figure far too high in this day and age. In Kentucky alone, 142,000 residents still don’t have adequate access, with many more lacking the true high-speed options necessary in the era of COVID-19. As a result, Kentucky’s broadband access ranks 40th when compared to all other states.
For Kentucky’s economy to truly compete, both nationally and globally, we must do better. Thankfully, leaders like Representative James Comer understand the magnitude of this problem, noting that “an investment in rural America is a positive investment for all of America.” There is no better time than now to put those words into action. And, Kentucky’s Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles recently highlighted the critical importance of broadband access to farm businesses and rural communities, saying that “internet connectivity will define the 21st century, as well as our state and nation’s ability to compete in the global economy.”
Broadband is a major issue for our manufacturers, which employ approximately 13 percent of our workforce and account for more than 18 percent of Kentucky’s total economic output. Access to reliable broadband is a key component in helping manufacturers across all industries succeed. These companies and the numerous, high-paying jobs they provide in our communities will only stick around if they are able to connect with customers, not just in our state and country, but around the world.
Education is also driving the need for better broadband access. To help prevent the spread of COVID-19, Kentucky’s public schools were shut down in the spring. Parents across the state, including myself, became part-time educators while their children utilized virtual learning. School districts and teachers stepped up to help their students continue to learn however possible. Unfortunately, the reality is that many students in low-income and underserved areas are unable to access high-speed, reliable internet. In households with annual incomes under $30,000, one-in-four teens lack access to computers at home, compared with just four percent of those in households earning over $75,000, according to a Pew Research report.
As president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, I understand the importance of broadband access in building and maintaining businesses of all sizes across the commonwealth. As our economy beings to reopen, the reality is that, for the foreseeable future, much of our commercial activity will stay online. Brick and mortar businesses should not be left behind simply because they lack access to high-speed broadband. For our economy to rebound all businesses must have the opportunity to offer their products and services online. And that starts with bringing access to broadband to communities where it isn’t currently available.
To start, our leaders in Washington should implement the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act to map out where Americans lack connectivity. This is a critical first step in determining the best plan of attack. And, while the FCC will vote on implementing the legislation during its July meeting, Congress still has not allocated the financial resources to carry it out.
As FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a Senate hearing last month, the digital divide cannot be closed until there is a better understanding of where connectivity lacks. Elected officials on both sides of the aisle must act quickly to ensure that the mapping project has the resources it needs to be successful in moving us forward.
Our economy will eventually recover from the damage of COVID-19. But to ensure that we come back as strong as possible, our leaders should lay out a plan to connect all individuals and businesses to the new economy, especially those in rural areas who still lack access to this vital service.
Far too many Kentucky businesses will not make it through the pandemic, and there is no better time to make sure that others do not suffer the same fate.
Ashli Watts is president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, the state’s largest and most influential business association.