As our country continues grappling with COVID-19, our people and our infrastructure are at the forefront of a national debate.

Amid the uncertainty, one powerful lesson has been made clear: Broadband is essential infrastructure for every community, and now is the time for the nation to work together to ensure everyone has access to it.

Nowhere is this truth more self-evident than in rural areas. A recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau reinforces what many of us serving rural communities already know: We are a nation of small towns, with 76% of communities home to fewer than 5,000 people. Of those, 42% have fewer than 500 people.

America must prioritize connectivity for all our citizens – rural, urban and everyone in between – to ensure in future crises all our citizens are connected and ready.

Hargray and our team of almost 800 professionals are part of an essential workforce keeping the communities we serve connected. Our purpose as a company is to empower people and communities to connect and thrive. That purpose is personal for us because, after all, we live here too.

Over 70 years ago, Hargray began as a family-owned and operated telecom company serving small communities in South Carolina. Today, the Southeast is growing faster than any other region in the country, and Hargray connects more than 2,000 miles of high-speed broadband fiber across small cities and towns throughout South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Alabama.

From the beginning of the crisis, we didn’t hesitate to go the extra mile. In addition to keeping our more than 90,000 customers connected, we also looked to the needs of our schools and young people. South Carolina schools, like many in other states, have long struggled with an achievement gap between high- and low-performing districts, a disparity that became even starker with the shift to home-based learning.

During the emergency, Hargray partnered with educators, including Beaufort County Schools, to install free broadband service in more than 2,000 homes with K-12 and college students to ensure they had the internet connectivity they needed.

We also provided complimentary Smart Office video conferencing and collaboration tools and speed upgrades to help small businesses transition to remote work.

As elected officials in Washington continue debating how to best allocate funds for COVID-19 relief, we strongly urge them to take bold steps that will make our country more resilient when the next emergency hits. That begins with committing the funds necessary to work with broadband providers across the nation to finish the job of ensuring every American home, business, school and health care facility are connected to the internet.

There are several things that can be done now.

First, we need a nationwide map of precisely which homes and businesses remain unserved. This way we can target limited federal funds to the problem – rather than duplicative efforts. Congress supports this work. Industry has funded a successful pilot program to show how it can be done. All that remains is immediate funding of the Broadband DATA Act to get moving.

Once we know where the gaps exist, we need to fill them. The more we make funding this effort a priority, the more resilient our rural communities will be for the next crisis that comes our way. Legislative efforts, like the LIFT America Act, would provide $40 billion to connect unserved areas. They deserve immediate priority.

Hargray has always operated on the premise that by connecting more of our neighbors, we can improve lives. Broadband is the conduit to making that happen. We stand ready to work even more intensively with our nation’s leaders to connect all Americans to its many opportunities.

Andrew Rein is chief financial officer of South Carolina-based Hargray.