As folks in our home states of North Dakota, Iowa, Georgia, and across the country are adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s become clear that access to the internet is paramount.

As you might imagine, the uptick in internet activity is noticeable. According to the Rural Broadband Association, since the COVID-19 national emergency was declared on March 13, its broadband providers have experienced increases in usage, as people are downloading and uploading data at significantly higher rates.

The reason behind the spike is pretty simple. Teachers and students are using broadband to keep the school year on schedule. Companies are moving their workplaces online, and employees are using broadband to stay connected. Healthcare providers are utilizing telehealth to connect with patients. People across the country are using the internet to apply for resources and to seek assistance. Families are relying on broadband to get updates from friends and loved ones. Immunocompromised individuals are using the internet to acquire necessities they need instead of going to a physical store.

These and other functions need to be protected, yet many providers are beginning to feel this pandemic’s economic impact. In the same survey previously mentioned, more than 54% of respondents from 38 states have seen an increase of up to 20% in uncollectible payments.

Many of these broadband providers have taken the Federal Communications Commission’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge. By taking the pledge, it has agreed to: not terminate service to any residential or small business customers because of their inability to pay their bills during this pandemic; waive any late fees that any residential or small business customers incur because of their economic circumstances; and to open its Wi-Fi hot spots to anyone who needs them.

Maintaining a reliable internet connection, especially for people in our rural communities, is critically important to weathering the COVID-19 pandemic. Congress needs to play its part in keeping folks connected.

That is why we’ve teamed up with our Democratic and Republican colleagues to help tackle this issue. Our bipartisan bill, (led by Sen. Amy Klobuchar) the Keeping Critical Connections Act, would create a program using existing, unobligated funds to incentivize small broadband providers to deliver free or discounted broadband services or upgrades for low-income families struggling to pay their bills or who have a student in the household in need of distance-learning capability during COVID-19. This will help our rural communities stay connected, as many of these small broadband providers serve our remote areas.

We cannot allow the COVID-19 pandemic to increase the digital divide that continues to plague our nation. Whether it’s to help our schools, businesses, and healthcare providers operate remotely, or making sure people stay connected, reliable broadband connectivity is as important as ever.

This bipartisan effort will help keep our citizens connected while making sure our smaller providers are made whole as we make it through these challenging days. This would be an important step to protecting internet connectivity for all, and we are urging our congressional colleagues to join us in this fight.

To read the full column in The Washington Examiner, click here.

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