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Last updated: July 14. 2013 11:18PM - 1396 Views

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A typical morning routine for many urban Americans includes a cup of coffee, a glance in the mirror, and a browse of the web for news, weather, correspondence, and perhaps a quick video. And yet, few may realize that millions of rural dwellers in the U.S., a country that prides itself on its development, don’t have Internet access at all.


While nearly 100 percent of urbanites have Internet in some form or another, over one fifth of people in rural areas can barely access the Web. Considering that Pennsylvania has the third-highest rural population in the country at just over 2.7 million, this issue shouldn’t be condemned to the back burner. And although many Pennsylvanians can access speeds of 10 mbps (mega-bytes per second), Pennsylvania doesn’t even rank on lists for higher speeds. For those not versed in broadband jargon, 4 mbps is what the FCC considers the bare minimum for basic Web browsing. True high-speed Internet, still not available beyond major urban areas, ranges between 50 to 100 mbps.


In a recent amendment to the Agricultural Reform, Foods and Jobs Act of 2013, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) proposed a pilot program for gigabit Internet projects in rural areas. This project could be immensely beneficial to the rural population, providing information to the farmers who maintain the food resources on which our country thrives. Farmers could easily access weather and climate projections, new techniques for caring for their plants and animals, and tools for banking, health care and other necessary small business applications.


Lizzie Bailey, Pennsylvania State Grange communications and membership director, met with representatives from Sen. Pat Toomey’s office to discuss several issues central to rural Pennsylvanians, as reported in a June 2013 ShipNewsNow.com article. Bailey participated in the Grange’s Legislative Fly-In, where she focused on the need for the expansion of rural broadband.


“Whether I’m Skyping with farmers in Australia to learn best practices or emailing my local network of growers in my community, the Internet is an important communication tool. Broadband opens up opportunities for education, work and endless networking for people in rural areas,” Bailey said.


Unfortunately, Sen. Toomey voted against Internet expansion. As Toomey stated in a 2013 article printed by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette regarding his policies for his rural constituents, “Pennsylvania is the biggest mushroom grower in the country and if someone proposed we start handing out checks to mushroom growers, you could argue that would be great for Pennsylvania, but it would be terrible for the economy, so I’d have to oppose it.” However, nobody is suggesting a government handout here. As the president noted in his 2012 State of the Union address, “This isn’t about faster Internet or fewer dropped calls. It’s about connecting every part of America to the digital age. It’s about a rural community in Iowa or Alabama where farmers and small business owners will be able to sell their products all over the world.”


What Toomey’s flawed argument doesn’t consider is that any growth in Pennsylvania’s economy can only contribute to the greater U.S. economy. And this amendment Toomey rejected would impact the rural population of the entire country, which the 2010 Census puts around 60 million.


In fact, agriculture remains an important backbone of the U.S economy, with a net income of $114 billion in 2012—up from $85 billion in 2008. According to the USDA, American agriculture is tied to 1 in 12 American jobs and provides us with 80 percent of the food we consume. In addition, the National Agricultural Statistics Service reports 2.1 million farms in America, with 62,100 in Pennsylvania alone, which should strike a chord with our senator. If one is supportive of small business as much as some claim, why then would Toomey oppose an amendment that could only benefit small businesses’ job growth?


The amendment also directed that priority will be given to communities experiencing outmigration. Considering that a 2011 U.S. Computer and Internet use study showed that 82 percent of Americans between 18 and 44 years old use the Internet at home, one could conclude that the outmigration directly corresponds with the ages of those leaving. If we want to retain a fresh young crop of agricultural entrepreneurs and rural dwellers with access to information that can only improve economic (and social) livelihoods, we had best support getting access to advancing technology for job creation and retention in our rural communities – and not oppose it. With this bill, the rural nuclear family takes a slide as teenagers set off in search of places to use the internet and find jobs. Sen. Toomey, think of the families and job growth.


- Joe Sestak is a former Navy admiral and U.S. congressman (PA-07), and was a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania in 2010.


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