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Heitkamp: How I’m working to make sure every North Dakotan is connected to high-speed internet

By Staff | Feb 24, 2017

It’s no secret that access to technology is now a key ingredient to the success of any student in any town from those living in rural communities in the middle of the country to cities on our nation’s coasts. Without the proper resources in schools, our children and the future of our economy could fall behind.

At least 37 percent of North Dakota’s rural communities lack access to high-speed internet – that’s 18 times higher than our state’s urban areas – but as many as seven in 10 teachers nationwide assign homework that requires high-speed internet. And for folks living on North Dakota’s tribal lands, that lack of access has historically been a significant setback. That’s unacceptable, and it’s why as a founding member of the U.S. Senate Broadband Caucus, I’ve been pushing for bipartisan solutions that will connect every North Dakota family, business, and school to high-speed internet.

We can see the difference access to high-speed internet makes in students’ lives – both in school and at home – so they can learn more and access more resources that might not be immediately available in their hometowns. And I want our federal leaders to see it, too.

That’s why I brought then-U.S. Federal Communications (FCC) Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel to Mandan Middle School last spring to join about 60 8th grade students for a conversation via Skype with University of North Dakota graduate and astronaut Dr. Karen Nyberg – the 50th woman to visit space – who was located 1,400 miles away in Houston, Texas. Access to high-speed internet through the federal E-Rate program made that conversation possible. And it’s helped Mandan Middle School – and many other schools and libraries across North Dakota – build out reliable high-speed internet which enables students to access educational resources beyond what is in their own communities – including learning about space from a NASA astronaut who has been there.

  • On that same visit, I also showed Commissioner Rosenworcel some communities in our state that don’t have that kind of access to connectivity – including in Indian Country where high poverty rates can severely limit access – and highlighted what it means for those kids.

And earlier this month I followed up with the new FCC Chair Ajit Pai who has made clear his understanding that high-speed internet can help ‘anyone, anywhere innovate and achieve.’ I urged him to incentivize telecommunication companies and carriers to invest in projects in North Dakota’s ‘last mile’ communities which are often the last to receive coverage because companies fear such investments won’t be lucrative enough.

We can change that attitude – and to do that we need to make sure federal leaders understand the long-term consequences of how isolating rural communities impacts local economies, as well as states like North Dakota – and across the nation as a whole.

But I haven’t stopped there. In several meetings with I’ve had with President Trump in the past few months – including during a lunch at the White House on February 9 – we discussed how to build opportunity in rural communities by expanding access to high-speed internet. And just last month, I wrote to him about how, by prioritizing infrastructure investments in reliable high-speed internet now, we can create the crucial link rural America must have with rest of the country and the world to help close gaps in achievement and ensure our nation’s commitment to innovation and success down the road.

We don’t have to lose out on talent, innovation, and entrepreneurship – but by failing to invest in remote communities – or even those just on the peripheries of larger towns, that’s exactly what we’re doing.

  • In today’s digital age, the ability to connect is among our world’s great unifiers – and it’s also a basic resource every child in school needs to gain critical skills to join the workforce, that every business needs to expand and learn, and that every community needs to remain strong and safe. And every American should be able to get the opportunity to connect, grow, and achieve.

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