By Senator Heidi Heitkamp
There has been a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking done to analyze election results with an eye towards rural America — namely Democrats trying to figure out how to gain traction there. In most elections if Democrats could just move 70–30 losses in rural counties to 60–40 losses, they would have a path to victory statewide. Far too often the policy vision to deliver this electoral improvement is boiled down to one simple idea: give them broadband.
It’s not the only idea that works in rural America, but it isn’t a bad one and it’s certainly a needed one. A few important stats:
- “22.3 percent of Americans in rural areas and 27.7 percent of Americans in Tribal lands lack coverage from fixed terrestrial 25/3 Mbps broadband, as compared to only 1.5 percent of Americans in urban areas, according to a recent report by the Federal Communications Commission.” (USDA, 2020)
- “Rural residents are still less likely than those living in suburban areas to report having home broadband.” (Pew Research, 2021)
- “About 81 percent of rural households are plugged into broadband, compared with about 86 percent in urban areas.” (New York Times, Census Bureau Data, 2021)
- “More than 30 million Americans — many of whom live on Tribal lands or in other rural areas — do not have access to broadband infrastructure that delivers even minimally sufficient speeds.” (White House Fact Sheet)
But here’s what’s so confusing: How can Democrats support rural broadband expansion and also support Gigi Sohn? Sohn, the Biden Administration’s nominee for FCC Commissioner, has made numerous public statements that call into question whether she will work to bring broadband to all rural Americans expeditiously.
- In a testimony to the House Energy & Commerce Committee, she said “policymakers have focused disproportionately on broadband deployment in rural areas of the United States.”
- During an April 2021 interview with Bloomberg Government, saying “What [have we gotten] for [the federal government’s existing] $50 billion investment? Not much.”
- Sohn also criticized the FCC broadband policies and claimed they “made it really easy” for rural broadband companies “to basically suck at the government teat to the tune of tens of billions of dollars.”
Given the significant progress that’s been made in closing the rural digital divide in recent years, and all the important work that remains to fully close the gap, this deeply cynical view of rural broadband efforts doesn’t inspire confidence.
Priorities matter, and Sohn has consistently tried to downplay the importance of policies focused on rural broadband and shift attention toward her preferred constituencies in urban areas.
Sohn has also been a longtime advocate of “overbuilding,” spending taxpayer dollars to build government-run networks in areas that already have service. This drains resources that should otherwise be going toward those Americans, overwhelmingly in rural areas, that have no service options. Given the supply chain problems and equipment and workforce shortages already affecting broadband deployment, it’s unconscionable that policymakers would allocate resources to overbuilding areas with installed service while putting rural Americans who have no service at the back of the line.
Senate Democrats should decide that enough is enough and ask President Biden to choose a new nominee for the FCC — one that can advance their agenda without these extremist tactics. Sohn is a mixed message at best and will obliterate any Democrats hope they will get credit for broadband wins.
Heidi Heitkamp is the founder of the One Country Project and former Democratic senator from North Dakota.