PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – U.S. Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, a Democrat who represents Washington state’s 3rd congressional district, says she’s the only member of Congress who does not have broadband internet. It’s her lived experience that drives her to want to make high-speed internet available to more people.
In May, she and a bipartisan group of House representatives introduced the Rural Internet Improvement Act, an act that would merge and codify the Rural e-Connectivity Pilot Program with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s broadband loan and grant program.
The congresswoman said the way these two things currently overlap makes them confusing and the last thing she wants to see is rural communities not going after money that’s available to them to establish broadband access because it’s a burden or the process is complicated.
“It’s critical that the dollars go where they need to go and not just who has the most capacity for applying for them,” Gluesenkamp Perez said.
At her home in Skamania County, Gluesenkamp Perez said broadband internet isn’t available to her. Instead, she connects to a radio tower. At times, she said it’s made running her business challenging while she’s working from home and it’s prevented her from using video streaming services.
She joked that for this reason, she was probably one of the last people who had Netflix DVDs mailed to her.
While having access to high-speed internet can provide more entertainment, she said it also serves many practical purposes. For example, rural parts of the country struggle to access health care providers. Telehealth services could be vital to rural towns, but it’s only accessible through a reliable internet connection.
In her district, Gluesenkamp Perez said she saw many families frustrated by their home internet situation when kids were forced to attend school virtually during the pandemic. Adults also struggled when they tried working from home in rural communities.
Gluesenkamp Perez knows historically, rural communities have depended on natural resource extraction for jobs, and while she expects jobs like that will continue, it’s important for communities to keep up with the way the world is changing and allow people the internet they need to work from home.
“It is something that can really cripple a local economy to not have access to broadband internet… Without access to broadband internet, people can’t bring their jobs with them,” she said.
Further emphasizing the need for broadband internet expansion, the Washington State Broadband Office announced Tuesday it had awarded $121 million in grants that will provide connections to unserved and underserved communities across the state. Demand for the grants exceeded the available funds by 261%.
“Unfortunately we could not fund all who applied, but we are pleased that this round of grants, as well as future funding efforts administered by the Washington State Broadband Office, will bring us closer to our goal of ensuring that all Washingtonians have reliable access to broadband service,” said Broadband Office Director Mark Vasconi.
This round of grants will provide initial service availability to 14,794 people.
The Rural Internet Improvement Act has bipartisan support. Republican Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla.; Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas; and Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla. are co-sponsoring the bill in the House with Gluesenkamp Perez.
The same bill was introduced to the Senate by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D, in January.
Gluesenkamp Perez said it’s easy to get people to reach across the aisle for “frustrating, real-world things that drive us all crazy.” She said things like that aren’t partisan issues.
The congresswoman feels confident the bill is in a good position, especially with the support by some in the Senate. She’s said many things will need to fall into place before the bill reaches the House floor, but some people say it could make it there by August.