Bringing Broadband Access to Rural America

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For decades now, the Rieke family have been growing field corn and soybeans and managing about 7,000 finishing hogs on their 900-acre farm in southern Minnesota – but since connecting to broadband internet service last year, they’ve been doing things differently. With a cloud-based app that uses GPS technology, for example, Jacob Rieke is able to optimize the spacing of his corn seeds during planting.

“It actually creates the map in the planter on an iPad as you’re going,” he said, “and then the iPad uploads it to the cloud. It can read accurately, using radio waves, across all 16 rows of our planter, and it will tell you if you have a row unit that’s not performing correctly, or whether a row unit happens to be out of seed or is doing something it shouldn’t be.”

The application used by Rieke is one of many currently available to farmers, along with real-time weather data, satellite-based nitrogen maps of fields, and soil moisture monitors. Farms such as Rieke’s, with access to fast internet service, have entered the era of “precision farming,” according to Brian Luck, assistant professor of biological systems engineering at the University of Wisconsin. Combines can gather data as they harvest and help create yield maps that are accurate down to a header width. “The area we’re able to measure and gather data about has become much, much smaller,” said Luck. “Technology has advanced to where we can vary the seeding rate in different parts of the field, and we can vary the seed hybrid in different parts of the field – the farmers can plant two different genetic strains, two different types of plants, within the same field based on soil properties, nutrient availability, slope. Anything that is going on within that field, they can pretty much tailor the input.” A growing number of producers are using sensor-loaded drones to create high-resolution maps of fields. These new technologies are helping farmers shift their focus from maximizing yields – an approach that can both drive down prices and degrade agricultural land – to optimizing yields, running algorithms that will help make long-term decisions balancing benefits and costs.

Before broadband, said Rieke, things didn’t run as smoothly. The Riekes and their neighbors relied on spotty internet service. “It was a headache,” he said. “What we had access to before our fiber was at most a 2.5 megabits-per-second [Mbps] download, and the upload was somewhere in the .5 to .6 megabits-per-second range.” Now, with a fiber connection enabling download and upload speeds of at least 25 Mbps, the Riekes have installed cameras in their hog facilities that provide live video feeds – a capability that wouldn’t have been available to them before.

Among farmers nationwide, the main obstacle to capitalizing on this new wave of precision technologies is a lack of broadband or high-speed internet service, defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as service that provides download speeds of at least 25 Mbps and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps. In June 2017, a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out that nearly 40 percent of rural Americans – about 23 million people – lacked access to broadband internet service, compared to about 4 percent of urban Americans. At a May House of Representatives hearing on the rural economy, U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., said the need for broadband service in his district was just as great as the need for roads and bridges. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 29 percent of American farms are not connected at all to the internet.

In June 2017, a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out that nearly 40 percent of rural Americans – about 23 million people – lacked access to broadband internet service, compared to about 4 percent of urban Americans.

The cost of closing the rural/urban broadband gap is estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars, but economics aren’t the only obstacle for farmers, said Terry Griffin, assistant professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University. The FCC’s definition of “fast,” he said, with its emphasis on download speed, is designed for the average internet user who uses the internet primarily for download-heavy applications such as e-mail, web surfing, and video streaming. The 25/3 standard, Griffin said, often won’t allow the real-time exchange of data required for precision farming. “In farming,” Griffin said, “we do a lot more uploading than downloading. That ratio is pretty much inverted for agriculture. It’s the opposite. And we’re trying to balance that in areas that have poor coverage to begin with.”

On the bright side, Griffin said, social media is already driving a change in this relationship. “On Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, we’re uploading images, which requires a lot more upload capacity, and users on the other end are downloading them. So the two need to start equating.”

 

Rural Cooperatives: Corralling Demand

Right now, of course, a good number of rural Americans are literally driving to the library, or to the parking lot outside a Starbucks, to do homework, stream video, or send e-mails with attachments. Many aren’t doing much better at home than they were in the dial-up age, which offered download speeds of about 1 Mbps. For many farmers, the only alternative to these slower speeds is satellite internet, which is generally too slow, expensive, and unreliable on days that are anything but sunny and windless.

rural broadband listening session web

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue hosts a listening session with Gov. Chris Sununu, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, local elected officials, industry leaders, farm bureau members, students, and local farmers at the Wolfeboro Town Hall, Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, on Sept. 1, 2017. The focus of the listening session was on improving quality of life for people living in rural areas, and included discussion of access to broadband, among other topics. Photo by Lance Cheung

So how did Rieke Farms, in rural south-central Minnesota, tap into broadband? The key for them, as for many rural residents who’ve done the same, is that they didn’t do it alone: Several years ago, the nearest town, Fairfax, joined forces with about 26 other municipal governments and created what has morphed into a grassroots, member-owned cooperative spanning 700 square miles in four counties. After seven years of development, the cooperative, RS Fiber, began delivering high-speed fiber-optic connections to customers in the area. Unlike many other rural broadband co-ops, RS Fiber relied primarily on county and municipal bonding authority, rather than federal loans or grants, to finance the $45 million project.

Some rural communities have been fortunate enough to be able to build on existing cooperatives. In central Missouri, Co-Mo Electric Cooperative, a nonprofit, customer-owned cooperative formed in 1939, launched a fiber-optic network in 2011, Co-Mo Connect, which has built connections to 25,000 members in a sparsely populated region. The project was financed through private loans and member contributions. Co-Mo was able to string cable along its own utility poles and rent access to others. About 70 percent of Co-Mo’s clients are residential customers paying $49.95 a month to receive up to 100 Mbps symmetrical (both upload and download speeds).

RS Fiber, without ready access to existing utility poles, is configured differently. At municipal hubs – such as Fairfax, the town nearest Rieke Farms – homes and businesses have their own dedicated fiber strands, and towers send a wireless signal to customers such as Rieke, who each have a wireless receiver. “That receiver is powered using just a regular CAT 5 internet cable,” said Rieke. “Power and data are sent along that cable. That comes into your router and ultimately gets distributed throughout our home network.”

RS Fiber is thriving in 2017. Customers in the cities and towns have access to speeds of up to a gigabyte per second symmetrical, and the company just made a 50 Mbps option available to its wireless customers. But the good news is far from universal, in rural Minnesota and elsewhere. In June 2017, an article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune depicted abysmal circumstances for rural Minnesotans, including one business owner in the northern Aitkin County who occasionally drove more than 60 miles to do her work from a hotel in Duluth – and eventually gave up and moved her family out of state. Only 27 percent of people have broadband access in Aitkin County, the least in the state.

Some individual farmers have found a way around poor connectivity, Luck explained, by hosting their own servers. “There are farmers in Wisconsin who own and maintain their own data servers on their farms, to be able to just host that data and then have a trusted adviser, a crop consultant or whoever, come in and access the data right there on the farm through an Ethernet connection, and do what they need to do with it. So they are sort of getting around the internet side of things that way as well, on farms where there’s an internet connection but maybe the broadband is not that great. They can maintain their server and then carry in the software and other things needed to do the analysis on their farms.”

Estimating what’s needed to host such an operation could be tricky, Luck said; a farmer would need to be able to quantify the amount of data such a system would be able to handle, and make decisions about which equipment and services to purchase based on that calculation.

Some individual farmers have found a way around poor connectivity by hosting their own servers.

According to Griffin, the technology most likely to deliver widespread broadband access to farmers isn’t fiber; without a rural cooperative or commercial investment in the community, it will simply remain too expensive an option. “We’ll need to use cellular,” he said. “A lot of areas barely have adequate coverage for voice calls, much less for transferring data, but that’s actually getting better. I think it’s a matter of time. And that’s where most of the action in politics is: Can the federal government subsidize cellular providers to do this, or do we just let it happen naturally?”

 

The Politics of Rural Broadband

At the federal level, support for expanding rural broadband access has been inconsistent, and at times difficult to track. The Obama administration spent $7 billion in funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 on expanding rural broadband service, and about half that money went into a single program the administration estimated would reach 840,000 households and businesses. But according to the Wall Street Journal report, there is no government tally of how many connections have been made, nor at what speeds. The USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) currently administers two loan programs and one grant program aimed at funding broadband infrastructure projects in rural communities.

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Michelle Finch, owner of Girls Gone Wine, a boutique winery and gift shop in Hochatown, Oklahoma. Installation of broadband in the area increased her business’ sales. For agriculture and other businesses in rural areas, reliable internet access has become critical. Photo by Lance Cheung

The Trump administration’s budget, released in May, proposed about $1 billion in cuts from rural development spending, and zeroed out the RUS’s broadband grant program. The administration proposed instead to establish $160 million in new rural economic infrastructure grants that would include both broadband and other projects. The administration’s proposed $1 trillion infrastructure package includes broadband among its priorities, but the details about what kinds of projects might be funded, and where, haven’t yet been released.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who grew up in rural Kansas, has publicly stated that expanding rural broadband access is one of his top priorities. In a speech he gave in March 2017, he said that “any direct funding for broadband infrastructure appropriated by Congress as part of a larger infrastructure package should be administered through the FCC’s Universal Service Fund [USF] and targeted to areas that lack high-speed internet access.”

The USF, established by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, includes four distinct programs designed to increase rural access to services. Earlier this year, however, the FCC had to scale back its goals for building out broadband when USF funding – collected as a percentage of long-distance voice revenues – came up short by about $210 million annually for the next 10 years. Pai and the FCC hope to leverage more private investing in the expansion of broadband infrastructure with some USF funds, including the Connect America Fund (CAF), designed to lure capital to high-cost areas such as rural communities. In August 2017, the FCC announced that it would be directing up to $1.98 billion in CAF money to rural broadband projects.

All the fiber-optic cable in the world, however, won’t make broadband more accessible to rural Americans if they can’t afford internet service. The future of these efforts to bridge the digital divide was muddied considerably on Dec. 14, 2017, when the FCC, in a 3-2 vote, repealed existing net neutrality rules. The repeal introduced the very real possibility, if not the likelihood, that internet access, particularly to data-heavy cloud-based applications, was about to become much more expensive, as providers were now free to act as gatekeepers of content – charging more for access to certain sites, or blocking access entirely. It’s too early to project what this regulatory change might mean for farmers. It’s difficult to see how it’s going to make their lives much easier, but the good news, at least, is that advocates and stakeholders have become increasingly aware that broadband access for farmers, as it is for any business owners, is a necessity rather than a luxury.

“For us to be able to advance what we call precision agriculture, with all the data we’re collecting,” said Luck, “we’ll need to require some sort of efficient broadband internet service in the rural community. It’s critical at this point.”

Caption for top photo: Cable bundles at Pine Telephone Company (Pine-Net) in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, in 2015. Through a multimillion-dollar public-private partnership, Pine, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development, undertook four projects to bring reliable, high-speed internet access to nine counties in the rural southeast part of the state. Photo by Lance Cheung

This article was originally published in the 2018 edition of U.S. Agriculture Outlook.

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