FCC Chairman Wyoming

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, left, discusses rural broadband connectivity with Gov. Mark Gordon, right, other elected officials and private sector representatives during a roundtable Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020, inside the state Capitol. Pai is traveling across the country and made a stop at the Wind River Reservation on Tuesday before traveling to Cheyenne for Wednesday’s meeting.

CHEYENNE – Connectivity is a problem for rural Wyoming residents across the state. But a number of initiatives from the Federal Trade Commission hope to bridge the digital gap in industries like health care, business and agriculture.

On Wednesday, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai met with Gov. Mark Gordon, state lawmakers, medical professionals and business owners to discuss the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and other FCC initiatives that focus on increasing connectivity.

Of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, Pai said, “This is the biggest step the FCC has ever taken to close that digital divide.”

The FCC board established the framework for the fund Jan. 30, which includes $20.4 billion in funding over the next 10 years to help an estimated six million rural homes and businesses gain access to the internet.

The first phase of the project, which will receive $16 billion in funding, will focus on blocks that are “wholly unserved with fixed broadband at speeds of at least 25/3 Megabits per second.”

For Senate Majority Floor Leader Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, expanding broadband is vital for businesses in the counties he serves, which have towns as small as 500 people.

With access to broadband networks, “Everything changes,” Dockstader said.

Wyoming Business Council CEO Josh Dorrell agreed on the business front, saying, “If you don’t have (broadband), you’re going to fail.”

As new technology and innovation bring more opportunities for business owners, being connected is more important than ever. Reliable access to the internet allows business owners to sell to a national and global audience through online retail.

Gordon said a number of Wyoming farmers already take advantage of the power of online retail, shipping lamb and beef overseas to Taiwan. But Pai said farmers across the country without broadband access are also missing out on additional opportunities.

In tracing calves, some farmers are able to track their information digitally, but others still scan and fax such information manually, which can cause a three- to six-month lag in tracing.

“That’s a huge gap,” Pai said.

Access to broadband also ties into a larger issue with health care in the state. Some residents don’t have the opportunity to make doctor’s visits due to proximity and the availability of rural health care providers.

According to the Harvard Business Review, telehealth, where patients electronically submit information, questions and images to their physician for review and response, has been gaining popularity in recent years.

Sheila Bush, executive director of the Wyoming Medical Society, said some parents in the state have been able to utilize these mobile technologies to treat childhood problems like ear infections without a face-to-face visit with a doctor.

“Those are incredible things that are so meaningful,” Bush said.

Last summer, the FCC doubled the cap to $800 million for its Rural Healthcare Fund, which grants funding for health care professionals to support broadband services necessary for providing care.

That was the first funding increase for the program in the last 20 years, and it includes $100 million for the Connected Care Pilot Telehealth Program. Lasting three years, the program will “provide an 85% discount on connectivity for broadband-enabled telehealth services that connect patients directly to their doctors.”

Going forward, when it comes to helping connect rural Americans to broadband technology, Pai said collaboration with community stakeholders and affected residents is key.

“This has nothing to do with politics,” Pai said. “This is all an American issue.”

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