As broadband experts and community leaders gathered recently to discuss strategies for expanding high-speed internet access to more rural areas in Maine, closing the divide that prevents many residents from participating in an increasingly digital economy remains one of the state’s most critical challenges. But to connect more Maine communities, consumers and business to the 21st economy, Congress must resist efforts that would send internet rules back to the 1930s and curb much-needed investment in broadband infrastructure.

The growth of the online economy in recent years has been staggering as commerce increasingly goes digital. Last year, e-commerce sales reached a record-high $453 billion — a 16-percent increase from 2016 alone. But for residents of Maine, where 98 percent of people live in rural communities, the benefits of online shopping or launching an internet business remain frustratingly out of reach. In fact, more than 175,000 Maine residents say they are unable to access the internet or do not have a strong enough online connection to meet their needs.

This lack of high-speed access also hurts local economies. Studies have shown rural communities with strong high-speed connections have lower unemployment rates and higher household incomes. For example, after the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded broadband grants to farms across the country, farm owners benefited from a significant increase in sales and profits — demonstrating how expanding broadband infrastructure can support Maine’s 1.4 million acres of farmland.

Bringing broadband to all Maine residents requires smart, light-touch federal policies that can spark private investment and innovation in high-speed infrastructure. That was the regulatory approach that guided broadband for decades and facilitated an unprecedented rate of innovation that made the internet an essential component of everyday life for many Americans and an economic engine for Maine’s — and the nation’s — economy.

But in 2015, the Federal Communications Commission tossed aside that successful approach by imposing 1930s-era regulations on the internet known as Title II. That quickly resulted in the loss of hundreds of billions of dollars in private investment for infrastructure projects that would have expanded broadband services to more Americans.

Fortunately, those rules were short-lived. In December, the FCC restored the pre-2015 regulatory framework by removing Title II regulations and enacting transparency rules that require internet service providers to disclose their net neutrality policies — which can be monitored and enforced by the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general.

However, in the wake of misinformation and overheated rhetoric from those claiming the FCC’s move would lead to the end of free speech and democracy, some members of Congress are now working to reinstate Title II through a legislative maneuver called the Congressional Review Act. The internet CRA would allow Congress to overturn the FCC’s order with a simple majority while bypassing the kind of substantive congressional debate necessary for developing internet policy that could affect virtually every American.

This is not the way to develop smart policies for preserving an open internet that is available to all Americans — an important goal that nearly everyone can agree. But misguided partisan policy approaches such as the internet CRA — or the net neutrality bills that have been proposed by some state lawmakers in Maine — distract from real solutions that would preserve a truly free and accessible internet.

Rather than playing policy games, open internet supporters should urge Congress to put aside partisanship and develop comprehensive national legislation that settles the debate and permanently enshrines net neutrality protections for future generations.

Maine is a national leader in digital technology and online innovation that is changing the way all Americans live. But even in Maine, tens of thousands of residents remain unable to access this world of innovation. To help connect these residents, Maine’s leaders should call for comprehensive bipartisan legislation in Congress that makes net neutrality the law of the land and ensures we can bring high-speed broadband access to anyone who wants it.

Hector Barreto is chairman of The Latino Coalition. He served as the administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration from 2001 to 2006.

Hector Barreto

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