Broadband and the Opioid Epidemic: The Power of Connection in Rural America

As many of you may know unfortunately firsthand, one of the monumental challenges facing our country today is the opioid epidemic. The numbers are staggering.

In 2016, nearly 64,000 Americans died from a drug overdose. At 174 people each day, this is more than the number of lives lost in car accidents or gun-related homicides. And, while no corner of the United States has gone untouched by this crisis, rural America has been hit particularly hard.

Last fall, a survey conducted by two leading farm and rural organizations, the American Farm Bureau and National Farmers Union, showed that nearly 50 percent of rural adults—and 74 percent of farmers—have been directly impacted by opioid misuse.

The roots of the opioid epidemic are multi-faceted and complex. This crisis stems from deep and challenging issues such as generational poverty, overprescribing of medication, and lack of economic opportunity. These contributing factors are often then compounded in rural communities where there is a heavy dependence on physical labor, lack of access to quality medical care, and a sense of isolation.

A critical tool for rural leaders on the front lines of the battle against this epidemic is something well within our means as a nation: increased access to high-speed internet. According to the Federal Communications Commission, rural areas continue to lag urban areas in broadband deployment. In fact, the FCC in March reported that, of the 24 million American households that do not have access to reliable, affordable high-speed internet, 80 percent are in rural communities.  Similarly, of the schools that lack access to high-speed internet service, 75 percent are in rural areas.

This unacceptable divide means that our next generation of children living in rural America do not have access to the same quality education as their urban peers. Modern tools of distance learning for adults seeking to advance their personal economic prospects are also unavailable to too many rural Americans. And the shortage of e-Connectivity also prevents farms and other rural businesses from participating in the global marketplace.

As we expand access to broadband in rural America, more rural communities can access telemedicine for treatment and recovery. Today, there are less than 40 physicians per 100,000 people in rural areas. Fewer physicians often translates to reduced availability and accessibility to medical care. But with telemedicine, people can connect with services to get healthy in their own community.

Beyond access to health care, we know that broadband is critical to building prosperity in rural communities. This connection will link farms, homes, schools, and health care facilities to the rest of the world. Broadband will make farms and factories more productive. Lastly, this infrastructure will expand access to education and health care resources and also connect businesses to new markets, acting as a catalyst for prosperity in rural communities and throughout America.

With those impacts, e-Connectivity is a central driver in quality of life and economic opportunity in rural America. Communities realize greater prosperity as jobs are created, schools can access new resources, and people are empowered to improve their health. However, the transformative power of broadband for rural communities is more than a mere idea.

Just ask Ken Johnson, the new administrator of our Rural Utilities Service.

Ken came to USDA from Tipton, Missouri, where he was the CEO of a successful rural electric cooperative. Through innovation and a belief that rural Americans deserve e-Connectivity on par with urban citizens, Ken’s co-op was the first rural electric cooperative in America to deliver broadband, by building a fiber gigabyte network to deliver high-speed internet service to its members.

Ken often talks about how that high-speed internet service changed his community. This connectivity made it possible for kids to do their homework at home and college students to take classes from home. That connection has had such a big impact that grateful neighbors have actually stopped Ken on the street to tell him how their newfound access to high-speed internet has changed their lives.

In the American Heartland and beyond, broadband e-Connectivity is truly a foundation for rural prosperity, from quality of life to a healthy workforce, innovation and economic development. With solid infrastructure enabling modern e-Connectivity, rural leaders battling opioid misuse can find new opportunity which then brings hope.

Where there is hope, we find resilient communities rallying to combat the tragedy of drugs and successfully reclaiming their future. In that, I find great promise and a reaffirmation of the role that each of us can play to build prosperity in rural America in the face of this epidemic, supported by 21st century infrastructure and the tradition of believing in the best of one another.

Anne Hazlett serves as the assistant to the secretary for Rural Development at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Related coverage:
USDA to Sponsor Roundtables on Rural Opioid Crisis
Now Online: USDA Website on Opioid Crisis and Rural Areas