Now more than ever, broadband is a powerful tool that is necessary for West Virginia students and businesses to be able to compete in a global digital economy.

Not only does it allow us to browse the internet, and connect with friends and family, but it has the ability to create opportunities that lead to new jobs and higher wages, providing the momentum West Virginia’s economy needs.

Whether you’re a small business owner looking to develop your online presence and reach a broader audience, or a teacher who needs to send a homework assignment to students who missed a class, broadband access is critical in today’s world. It keeps us connected, has the ability to break down barriers and lead to significant economic growth.

Unfortunately, the digital divide between rural and urban America is growing, and West Virginia is at the bottom of the pack, ranking 48th in the nation for broadband accessibility. Additionally, about 30 percent of West Virginians lack access to broadband that meets the FCC’s standards.

This is simply unacceptable and rural America deserves better.

Since day one, connecting West Virginia has been a top priority of mine. And one way I have been working to accomplish this is through my Capito Connect plan, which I launched in 2015 to serve as a roadmap for bringing affordable, high-speed internet access to homes, businesses and classrooms in West Virginia.

The three-part plan accomplishes this goal by understanding the benefits of connectivity, fostering collaboration between government and the private sector and promoting economic growth through innovation.

Since launching this initiative, I have taken several steps to increase connectivity and bridge the digital divide. I’ve heard from thousands of West Virginians during a state-wide listening tour, hosted several roundtable discussions, released a guidebook to help our communities understand the federal resources available and coached West Virginians on these opportunities.

Capito Connect has also helped on a larger scale with projects, like in 2015 when I announced a new provider for a cell tower in Paw Paw or just a few months ago when I announced a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide access in Barbour, Randolph and Upshur counties.

Capito Connect is making a difference and connecting thousands of West Virginians.

But Capito Connect is not the only avenue I am using to bridge the digital divide.

My roles on both the Appropriations and Commerce Committees put me in a strong position to advocate for policies that will help West Virginia, especially when it comes to connectivity.

As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I have identified new funding for broadband and strengthened federal programs. Just this past summer, I helped advance two Appropriations bills out of committee that include resources to expand rural broadband access and support efforts like Capito Connect.

During several Commerce Committee hearings, I questioned Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on broadband deployment and asked Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to work together with the U.S. Economic Development Administration to expand access in West Virginia.

I’ve raised these same issues directly with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on numerous occasions as early as last year when I sent a letter to the president encouraging the administration to include broadband deployment as a core component of any infrastructure package. After sending this letter, I was glad to see that the administration’s proposal will include a provision to expand rural broadband.

On the policy side, I have introduced a number of legislative solutions, like the Gigabit Opportunity (GO) Act, which helps rural and low-income communities access high-speed broadband that will ultimately lead to new investments to spur economic growth.

Going forward, I am committed to continuing efforts to assure broadband data is accurate. Doing so will allow us to prioritize communities that need it most. The West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council, who I have partnered with on this issue, is already addressing data accuracy with their broadband mapping tool, which provides interactive access to the state’s broadband availability.

We have made a lot of progress, but there is still work to be done, and I am ready to build on this momentum.

I look forward to continuing this important dialogue with the president and his administration, my colleagues on the Senate Broadband Caucus and FCC officials, like Commissioner Ajit Pai who has visited West Virginia numerous times to witness the problem firsthand. By keeping the discussion going between various groups, we can bring more innovative solutions to the table.

Connecting our communities won’t happen overnight, but we are headed in the right direction. This goal is not only achievable, but it is critical for our state to compete and thrive today, and my Capito Connect plan is bringing us closer to bridging the digital divide.