Rural communities without meaningful access to broadband are at risk of falling behind their more populated counterparts. This digital divide continues in many of our rural communities and hinders job growth, slows e-commerce, and limits access to online education and health care — stunting population growth and holding back rural economies.

According to a recent survey, Americans spend 506 minutes, more than eight hours, each day viewing and using a variety of media. Internet use accounts for more than 30 percent of that time. We increasingly rely on the internet for access to news, shopping, connecting with friends and family, and searching for information.

Clearly, the internet is a driving force behind commerce, access to health care, continuing education, and agricultural excellence. Access to broadband is critical to fully realizing many initiatives that could greatly benefit rural areas.

High-speed internet access allows rural businesses to expand their markets beyond their geographic locations through the creation of an online presence. “Mom and Pop”-type stores and small manufacturing facilities can broaden their reach and sell innovative products on a national scale, or even globally.

Emerging technology in the field of health care, such as telehealth capabilities, allows rural residents to communicate directly with medical professionals without long distance travel to medical facilities. The availability of telemedicine improves the overall health of a community by providing efficient access to routine healthcare and specialist physicians.

High-speed internet access also increases educational opportunities through online college courses and access to large libraries. The availability of these assets provides rural residents with global information and resources. Greater numbers of colleges and universities offer classes and degrees online, allowing residents across the country to expand their knowledge and earn degrees without travel and relocation to places where college campuses are located.

For those in agriculture, broadband access is vital. It allows farmers to obtain real-time information including weather forecasts and crop prices. Precision agriculture and data management tools offer immense opportunities for farmers to lower costs, increase crop yields, and further improve stewardship of our natural resources. Access to broadband is a critical component in the implementation of these tools.

Too often, high-speed internet access is either not offered in rural communities, or it is priced too high, making it prohibitively costly for the average resident. As Senate Chair of the Legislative Commission on Rural Resources, I am committed to finding a solution to these obstacles, so we can help our communities prosper.

I was pleased to see that the Finger Lakes region has been awarded funding for broadband expansion through the second phase of New York State’s Broadband Program. The program is now accepting applications for the third phase of funding for broadband expansion. Applications are due by August 15, 2017. I strongly encourage interested parties to visit the program’s website at nysbroadband.ny.gov.

The benefits of expanding high-speed internet into our rural communities include population growth, economic development, and healthier communities. That is something we can all get behind.

Helming represents New York's 54th Senate District

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