Ending the Digital Divide

In the early years of the 20th century, America could be seen as a nation clearly divided between haves and have-nots. People who lived in cities had electricity, while rural folks did not. The lifestyles of these two Americas could not have been more different. While city dwellers enjoyed refrigeration, electric motors to power machinery and illumination at all hours of day, rural people planned their lives around the sun’s rise and set, pumped water by hand and cooked over wood-fired stoves.
It can be argued no single development had a greater impact on rural America than rural electrification. In the 1930s, the government began providing loans to rural cooperatives to bring electricity to the countryside. Within a few decades, rural Americans had largely caught up to their urban cousins — at least in terms of access to electricity.
Today, we again have two Americas. This time, it’s a digital divide. City folks enjoy high-speed internet, while rural areas eke by with dial-up or unreliable satellite internet. This disparity of connectivity became painfully obvious during the COVID pandemic, when children were sent home to attend classes online. Without broadband internet access, rural parents drove children to restaurant parking lots in hopes of hopping onto free Wi-Fi.
Once again, a public-private partnership between government and local businesses is tasked with reuniting two Americas. In January, the Missouri Department of Economic Development awarded $261 million to 60 local providers in an effort to expand broadband access statewide. A great many of these grants are directed at rural areas. I’m happy to report White River Valley Electric Cooperative of Branson was awarded $47.3 million to bring high speed internet to Christian, Douglas, Ozark, Stone, and Taney counties.
In just a few short years, internet access has transformed from a luxury to a necessity in both education and business. When I got my first teaching job at Lutie R-VI School District, we didn’t have laptops or the internet. Now students complete their assignments online and have access to informational resources that were unimaginable when I was young. Even a small mom-and-pop shop in the 33rd District with good internet service can sell their products online, shipping goods around the world to increase both reach and revenue. Well-connected manufacturers access data and advanced design tools electronically. And as the pandemic showed us, it’s possible for employees with a reliable internet connection to be just as productive working remotely as they were sitting in an office. That’s not to mention the increased access to health care that comes through telemedicine.
Those of us who live in the Ozarks are blessed with beautiful surroundings, great neighbors and a level of freedom that many Americans seek. Over the years, the area has attracted many transplants, but often our new neighbors’ dreams of working remotely are dashed by the lack of connectivity. Without broadband access, today’s rural residents don’t have much advantage over their rural electrification-era ancestors, and lag far behind urban residents who take internet access for granted. That’s going to change with rural broadband expansion.
I’m proud of White River Valley Electric Cooperative for its dedication to bringing affordable broadband to underserved areas in the 33rd Senatorial District. Nearly 90 years ago, the co-op’s founders overcame the hard-packed ground of Missouri’s Ozarks to erect poles, string wire and bring electricity to the countryside. They’re doing it again, but this time delivering a world of information to the Ozarks. Broadband internet means much more than watching our favorite shows on Netflix. It’s a connection to the world that allows our children to learn and our businesses to compete. Smart investments in broadband infrastructure will reunite rural Missouri with the rest of America and ensure the Ozarks continues to be a great place to live and work.
It is my honor to serve the residents of Douglas, Howell, Ozark, Shannon, Stone, Taney and Texas counties in the Missouri Senate, and it’s always a pleasure to hear from friends and family back home. If I can help you in any way, please call my Capitol Office at 573-751-1882.  You can also visit my webpage at senate.mo.gov/mem33, on Facebook: @SenatorKarlaEslinger, or follow me on Twitter: @seneslingermo.
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