PALM DESERT, Calif.—As rural Americans demand access to broadband, the head of the Federal Communications Commission told electric cooperative leaders they have an important role to play in making that happen.

"Your mission is not over. To the contrary, I think it's just beginning, and I think we're going to make a big dent in the digital divide and many other technology issues in the years to come," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told the 2018 CEO Close-Up conference.

Speaking Jan. 8 on video, Pai said he considers expanding rural broadband access to be the FCC's top mission. And he knows about the disconnect firsthand, having grown up in Parsons, Kansas, where his parents still reside.

"Increasingly, what I see when I go back home and travel to other towns like Parsons is that there's a sense that they are on the wrong side of the digital divide—that they are simply not going to be able to have the 21st century economic and social opportunities that others do," said Pai.

He called electric cooperatives "heroic figures" in the push to bring high-speed internet to small towns.

"What you're able to do—given your infrastructure, your footprint, your dedication to your communities—is make sure the next generation of Americans has access to the 21st-century version of electricity, which is broadband."

Jay Schwarz, the chairman's wire line advisor, echoed Pai's sentiments, telling CEOs that under Pai's leadership, "rural America is going to be a first thought, not an afterthought." And he emphasized the role for electric co-ops.

"Most of you are not in the broadband business—yet. But the early success of those who are is actually pretty remarkable," said Schwarz. In particular he cited Co-Mo Electric Cooperative in Tipton, Missouri, which in a 2014 ranking had the fastest broadband in the state, even beating Google service in Kansas City. That's exactly what the FCC is hoping for.

"Our goal should be making sure that these rural communities are able to get online and have the type of bandwidth they need to access the same services and applications that I can use in a metropolitan area," he said.

As for co-ops being well-suited for the job, Schwarz said it's more than just owning the poles and having right-of-way access.

"Perhaps your greatest asset is your membership and the trust you have built for decades with your communities."

Both Pai and Schwarz encouraged co-ops to consider taking part in the FCC's upcoming Connect America Fund Phase II auction, expected to happen in July. Up to $2 billion over the next 10 years will be available to deploy new networks providing voice and broadband service in unserved areas.

"This is a first-of-its-kind opportunity," Schwarz told the CEOs.

"Please don't let this opportunity pass you by without giving it a hard look."

Read more about Co-Mo Electric Cooperative's broadband project in RE Magazine.