A report adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in 2016 estimated that 34 million people in the United States lacked access to broadband internet, which the agency defines as having download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second.
The problem, according to the report, was most acute in rural areas, where it was estimated that high-speed internet connections were still not available to 23 million residents, or 39 percent of that population, despite a reported $1.6 billion invested by the nation's broadband providers since 1996.
Clearly, eliminating this digital divide that continues to separate rural and urban America is a challenge congressional and industry leaders must meet to ensure all the country's residents are connected to everything from online education and health services to attracting business customers in the 21st century marketplace.
Cost is certainly a factor. A separate FCC report issued last year estimated it would take $40 billion to expand internet access to cover 98 percent of Americans and another $40 billion to deliver broadband to 100 percent of the U.S. population.
"There are small communities that have been abandoned because of their size and isolation," Ralls County (Mo.) Electric Co-op General Manager and CEO Lynn Hodges said during a roundtable discussion on the issue last month. "Economics make it tough to build out."
U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, a Republican representing Missouri's 6th Congressional District, told residents during that roundtable in New London, Mo., that expanding broadband internet is a priority.
He's hopeful the farm bill and President Donald Trumps $1.7 trillion infrastructure plan now being debated with provide additional funding to help achieve that goal, but there so far have been few specifics made public.
There has been congressional action before. The American Reinvestment Act provided funding for all 50 states, five territories and the District of Columbia to help policymakers extend broadband availability to rural areas. But the funding for that project expired in 2015 and the mapping data it produced is outdated.
Unquestionably, better mapping by the FCC to determine which areas lack broadband is seen as an important first step. Too often if one person in a census block is determined to be adequately served, then the whole block is considered adequately served, and that often is not the case in rural areas like Northeast Missouri and West-Central Illinois.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told Politico earlier this year that the agency understands the problem and is updating the way it collects information from providers to better understand which areas of the country have broadband, but he called it a labor-intensive process and offered no timetable for its completion.
Meanwhile, a recent report by the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity, led by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, said reducing regulatory barriers to invest federal dollars more effectively would improve rural access to reasonably priced broadband internet.
The Associated Press reported the task force concluded that de-emphasizing how faster connections are delivered -- whether by fiber optic cable, satellite link, cellphone signal or other technology -- would better serve consumers because of the rapid advancement of mobile broadband, which costs less to deploy than fiber.
The bottom line is that developing a comprehensive plan to address this issue is imperative.
Like properly maintained roads and bridges, reliable, high-speed internet connectivity should be considered essential to our nation's infrastructure.