Less than a century ago, this nation rallied to extend electric service to rural areas. Leaders of the day recognized that reliable electricity was vital to succeeding in the 20th century.
Resilient, high-speed broadband is the 21st century equivalent of electricity. It is vital to educational readiness, economic success, health care, research and just about every other facet of life today.
Yet a 2016 federal report ranked Arizona low for connectivity in rural communities.
This is why Gov. Doug Ducey and other state leaders are stepping up to extend the same quality of internet service enjoyed in Phoenix and Tucson to the state’s rural areas. As the Arizona Statewide Broadband Strategic Plan states, “Broadband is the backbone that connects communities — whether it is to organize a neighborhood cleanup or to provide telehealth services to communities that are geographically separated from health care providers.”
Rural schools and libraries were the logical places to start. The state has dedicated $11 million to leverage $99 million in federal E-Rate funding to connect them to reliable, high-speed broadband service, expanding educational opportunities for rural students and adults. Over the next two years, more than a quarter-million students will gain access to high-speed internet service.
This year, the Legislature adopted Gov. Ducey’s budget request for $3 million to support broadband planning and deployment. These dollars will be used to enhance the connectivity of rural regions under the guidance of the Arizona Commerce Authority (ACA), which created a division solely to focus on rural broadband deployment.
Ultimately, the state’s goals are to enable rural Arizona communities to:
• More easily access broadband services at speeds and prices equal to national averages in rural areas.
• More consistently access resilient and reliable broadband services.
• Leverage multiple provider options to serve the needs of Arizona residents and businesses.
In addition, the ACA is also supporting communities that are applying for the Rural Broadband ReConnect Program. This U.S. Department of Agriculture program provides loans and grants for the costs of construction, improvement or acquisition of facilities and equipment to provide broadband service in eligible rural areas.
As we move toward accomplishing these goals, rural Arizonans will benefit from increased connectivity, full access to education and online resources, enhanced telemedicine services, and a more level playing field for economic opportunity.
Keith Watkins is senior vice president for economic and rural development for the Arizona Commerce Authority.