PhotoThe Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in a draft report, says the U.S. has made great strides in closing the “digital divide” and expanding broadband internet services in rural areas of America.

Rural counties have consistently lagged behind metro areas in the deployment of fast internet because consumers are spread out and it’s expensive to serve them. Increasing service to rural areas has been an FCC priority for nearly a decade but expansion of service has come at a slow pace.

“We’ve been tackling this problem by removing barriers to infrastructure investment, promoting competition, and providing efficient, effective support for rural broadband expansion through our Connect America Fund,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement

The draft report says the number of Americans who lack access to a fixed broadband connection dropped by 25 percent in one year, from 26 million to 19.4 million between 2016 and 2017.

Minimum speed

To be considered broadband service, an internet connection must achieve a minimum speed of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps. The report says a lot of the progress has come in rural America, where 5.6 rural consumers got faster internet over the course of 12 months.

Earlier this month, the co-chair of the Congressional Rural Broadband Caucus released a letter he wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that urged her to include broadband spending in a potential infrastructure package.

Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), whose district spans a wide area of rural Eastern Virginia, says President Trump’s proposal for an infrastructure bill should include funding for technology infrastructure too.

“With that in mind, I am urging you to prioritize policies in the 116th Congress that will help promote broadband investments and bridge the digital divide between urban and rural America,” Wittman wrote in the letter.

Virginia an underserved state

According to Wittman, nearly 50 percent of consumers living in rural Virginia lack access to high speed internet and 29 percent don’t have any internet service at all. He says obstacles include government red tape and regulations, cost of service, and varying geographic factors.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, one of two Democrats on the Commission, took issue with the draft report that reports significant progress.

“Millions of households -- in rural and urban communities -- have no access to high-speed service,” she wrote in a tweet. “That’s a fact.”

The five commissioners -- three Republicans and two Democrats -- will meet later to vote on whether to adopt the draft as official FCC policy.

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