As a retired NASA engineer and technology enthusiast, Ron Schlagheck is grateful for a fast Internet connection at his rural home near Winchester, Tenn.
“I like to have access to information,” said Schlagheck, 73, a volunteer for AARP Tennessee whose career involved managing international teams that oversaw repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope and delivered scientific payloads on Skylab, Space Shuttle missions, and the International Space Station. Lately, he’s helped AARP make the case to Tennessee legislators that they need to expand access to broadband – another name for high-speed Internet.
“We have so many rural communities that have very limited access to the Internet or none at all,” he said.
Across the country, AARP staff and volunteers like Schlagheck are working to build awareness of the potential for broadband and are convincing policymakers to find solutions to Internet coverage gaps – the so-called Digital Divide – that are prevalent in many places, especially low-income communities. Experts say these areas are often the last to get broadband and often at slower speeds, leaving people in these communities at an ongoing disadvantage.
Access to affordable, reliable, and truly high-speed broadband access has the ability to improve equity and make communities more livable for all. While broadband is a burgeoning advocacy topic, it’s an ideal one for AARP, says Coralette Hannon, who coordinates the association’s work on state and local telecommunications advocacy.
“Home broadband, whether it’s through mobile devices or home computers, holds especially promising opportunities for older people,” Hannon said. “Broadband helps keep people socially connected, but it also enables access to healthcare services, entertainment, distance learning, telehealth, and other activities that contribute to successful aging.”
- In Alabama and Texas, AARP offices are working with community leaders and state legislators on strategies to bring high-speed Internet to rural and farming communities, among other places.
- AARP Illinois played a key role in the development and adoption of legislation signed on Aug. 13 by Gov. Bruce Rauner that creates a task force to explore ways to expand broadband access.
- In New Mexico, Gov. Susana Martinez last year signed two AARP New Mexico-backed bills designed to extend high speed Internet access to rural and underserved areas of the state. And this year, Martinez signed more Internet-access legislation that AARP New Mexico worked to pass, including a measure to bring broadband to public, tribal and school libraries.
- Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed an AARP Tennessee-backed bill in 2017 allowing electric cooperatives to provide broadband and video service and funded the effort with $45 million in grants and tax credits.
- This summer, AARP Indiana filed comments urging state regulators to bring down barriers to broadband access, particularly the lack of Internet access in rural areas where service providers have been slow to deploy affordable service. In its filing, AARP Indiana called for using public monies to bring “ubiquitous broadband service.”Ambre Marr, an advocacy director for AARP Indiana, says the broadband advocacy ties to AARP’s support for age-friendly, livable communities and efforts to promote healthy lifestyles. “We want people to stay in their communities and have access to health care,” she said. “And why would they stay in their homes and communities if they can’t be connected.”
- AARP West Virginia has worked for several years on broadband access and fought this year for legislation to allow cooperatives to form and to provide the service. Angela Vance, who leads the state office’s advocacy efforts, said much of West Virginia, has obstacles to bringing broadband, including rugged terrain and low-income areas. “We see a critical need,” said Vance. “We see the opportunity for telehealth and all these technologies of the future that can help with caregiving. These types of services are never going to come if the whole town doesn’t have high-speed Internet.”
While AARP has championed many successful efforts to boost awareness and access to broadband, the work will continue so that we can ensure that every household has access to truly high-speed Internet service.
Would you like to volunteer with AARP? Visit aarp.org/getinvolved
To stay up to date on our work in your state, and nationwide, sign up for our e-alerts AARP Advocates e-newsletter, follow me on Twitter @roamthedomes, or visit your state Web page.
Elaine Ryan is the vice president of state advocacy and strategy integration (SASI) for AARP. She leads a team of dedicated legislative staff members who work with AARP state offices to advance advocacy with governors and state legislators, helping people 50-plus attain and maintain their health and financial security.