MTN News: Tester says pandemic has shown big need for better broadband

by Dennis Bragg

If your home is like most households right now, you’re likely wrestling for Internet bandwidth, whether it’s for a Zoom call for business, remote learning for the kids, streaming video or playing games.

Montana’s senior senator believes it’s the perfect evidence Congress needs to get serious about solving the “digital divide.”

Broadband in rural states like Montana already lags behind the rest of the country, and especially the rest of the world. And the stay-at-home directives of recent weeks are showing those shortcomings.

“And I speak to it from personal experience,” Sen. Jon Tester said. “You know, the farm you’ve got to be standing in the right corner of the house having your mouth in the right position in order to get cell service out there. And some people aren’t even that fortunate. They don’t have cell service at all. We’ve got some work to do on high speed Internet, broadband, cell service. They’re all connected.”

Tester says the local Internet providers and co-ops have “been doing a great job”, improving connections, and just as importantly, mapping where fiber is already in the ground. And he praises the school districts, who’ve even given out cell cards to people who don’t have Internet.

“The schools are doing a great job out there trying to educate folks via the Internet,” Tester said. “But if you don’t have Internet service you’re just left out in the cold.”

This week, Tester introduced the Emergency Education Connections Act, providing up to $4 billion for public and tribal schools to close the “homework gap” because they don’t have connections. He says students should “hitting the books, not a firewall.”

He’s also encouraged to see hospitals doing more online.

“Telehealth is the perfect response to that,” Tester said. “Because you can stay in your home. You can get diagnosed and move forward. If you have to come to the hospital, you do. Otherwise they can do everything and you don’t have to worry about going and potentially getting infected, especially if you’re an elderly person. So it makes total sense. And in fact, I will say that we need to do some policy things to help encourage more telehealth.”

Tester says there are some $20 billion available through the Federal Communications Commission, and more funds from U.S.D.A. That’s money he wants to see put to good use.

“There’s some silver linings here,” Tester said. “And one of them is, it’s shown how necessary it is to have good broadband out there. It really can help, not only with healthcare but education. And we knew all along it could help with business.”

Tester was a strong advocate for the infrastructure projects like roads and bridges that were used as an economic stimulus coming out of the “Great Recession” a decade ago. And he feels carefully managed broadband spending could play the same roll now.