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Bridging the Digital Divide

By Sen. John Thune

August 20, 2021

“Bridging the digital divide” is something that’s often discussed in the halls of Congress. While there are plenty of divisions in Washington, a digital divide isn’t one of them. You have to leave the Beltway and travel to places across America where you actually have to think twice about whether or not you’re going to have an internet connection – places like rural South Dakota where certain connectivity challenges can remain frustratingly unresolved. It’s 2021, and private companies have developed technology to send customers into outer space, yet we’re still talking about the importance of connecting rural America with reliable, high-speed internet. That needs to change. 

As a member and former chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the internet and everything from planes, trains, and automobiles to the depths of the ocean to the heights of outer space, expanding mobile and fixed broadband access in rural America and to tribal communities has long been a priority of mine. And as a senator from a rural state, I’ve always looked for opportunities for South Dakota to help lead the nation in its deployment. 

The good news is that things have come a long way over the last few years because of the sustained investments made by telecommunication providers across South Dakota and the rest of the country. In 2019, Sioux Falls became one of the first communities in America to become 5G-enabled. As we continue to lay the groundwork and pave the way for future development and deployment, South Dakota has frequently attracted the attention of, and visits from, leaders at the Federal Communications Commission, the federal agency where the majority of the government’s broadband expertise resides. We’re doing the right things, and we’re heading in the right direction.

The bad news is that there are still corners of our state that don’t have the benefits of reliable broadband services. A strong internet connection is critical for small businesses to connect with customers, for farmers who rely on precision agriculture technology to maximize crop yields, and for patients who depend on telemedicine to get the care they need when a hospital or medical professional is physically out of reach. For many, it can mean the difference between success and failure or potentially life and death.

I’m glad broadband is now being recognized as vital infrastructure. We need to continue investing in its success, but we have to do it wisely. We must prioritize our needs and identify the appropriate partners, both in and out of government, to help reach our goal of fully connecting every South Dakotan who wants it. But simply dumping more federal funds into a pot and spinning the acronym wheel to see which federal government agency it lands on is not the way to do it. 

I fully support using targeted government funds to help meet these needs, but the federal government cannot solve this problem on its own. It certainly can’t just spend its way out of it. We must be effective with our planning and efficient with our investment as we look for a holistic approach that continues to move broadband from luxury to necessity – that leverages available government resources and incentivizes private sector innovation to push the boundaries of this effort toward success. 

For too long we’ve talked about bridging the digital divide. It’s time to actually do it. Access to reliable broadband has the potential to connect South Dakotans to a larger marketplace, to increase the quality of education for students, and to continue enhancing parts of our everyday lives. I’ll continue to support smart investments that use taxpayer dollars responsibly – because government waste won’t help anyone.