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Rural America still lacks adequate broadband access

Pekic/iStock/Getty Images Laptop in rural wheat field with broadband internet
House agriculture subcommittee hearing features need for reliable internet access.

Broadband is no longer a luxury but a necessity for modern agriculture and the quality of life for rural Americans, Missouri Farm Bureau president Blake Hurst told a House subcommittee Thursday.

“While most Americans take broadband for granted, 26.4% of rural Americans lack access to broadband,” the Missouri farmer told the House agriculture subcommittee on commodity exchanges, energy and credit. “This is alarming, particularly when compared to the only 1.7% of urban Americans who lack such access.”

Yet, even these disheartening numbers understate the extent of the problem.

Current broadband data and maps “fail to accurately determine broadband access,” Hurst said. “Farmers and ranchers … must have access to fixed and mobile broadband to be more efficient, economical and responsive to environmental needs.”

In his opening comments, subcommittee chairman David Scott (D., Ga.) said he knows that Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Ajit Pai plans on releasing an order very soon requiring increased reporting in an effort to improve the current failing broadband map system.

“It is very important that rural America weigh in on these policy changes at the FCC and here in the halls of Congress as we continue to talk about proposals to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure,” Pai said.

Earlier in the week, Sens. Joni Ernst (R., Iowa) and Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) sent a letter to Pai regarding FCC’s role in ensuring the accuracy of broadband maps. According to their letter, the 2018 "Broadband Deployment Report" indicates that 90.5% of all Iowa residents have access to broadband. “As much as we wish that were the case, we can tell you that the FCC data drastically overstates broadband access throughout our state,” the senators wrote.

“While we appreciate everything that the commission has done to expand rural broadband connectivity, it is critical for these maps to be improved so public and private partners alike have access to the accurate data needed to bridge the digital divide,” the letter noted. “A validated set of data based upon standardized methods of granular reporting will be essential to ensure that funding is available throughout rural America.”

Hurst said the Missouri Farm Bureau supports H.R. 3162, the Broadband Data Improvement Act, which would improve the accuracy of broadband coverage maps and better direct federal funds for broadband buildout. The bipartisan bill would require broadband providers to report data to create an improved National Broadband Map that is significantly more accurate and granular.

Upside potential

The upside to broadband, meanwhile, is significant. Hurst presented the committee with a Farm Bureau study showing that widespread broadband service could boost the agricultural economy by an estimated $64.5 billion.

Broadband connectivity allows equipment like cloud-connected planters, irrigators, tractors and harvesters to automatically change application rates for seed, fertilizer and more. This improves sustainability by enabling farmers to apply less water, protect soil health and precisely plant seeds, which also helps farmers save money.

“After we collect this data, we must transfer it from our machines to the company who writes our ‘prescriptions,’ share it with our partners who supply our seed and eventually utilize it when making crop insurance and other business decisions,” Hurst said. “Transferring this data, which is essential to the future success of every farmer, requires access to fast, reliable and affordable broadband.”

Reliable broadband will also contribute to the health and welfare of animals, Hurst said. Digital connectivity is playing an increasingly important role in optimizing animal care.

“From monitoring feed usage and rations to scheduling delivery of animals, livestock farmers use broadband daily to improve the efficiency of their operations and ensure the health of their herds. …All the data collected can be compiled into production reports, which help farmers make more informed decisions about their farm and ranch.”

David Hengel, executive director of Greater Bemidji in Bemidji, Minn., shared the success stories of north-central Minnesota’s ability to drive development and promote prosperity through broadband capabilities.

Bemidji’s rural telecommunications cooperative, Paul Bunyan Communications, took the bold and visionary approach of laying one of the largest all-fiber broadband networks in the nation. As a result, nearly every home, farm or business in the region has access to gigabit upload and download broadband speeds.

“Increasingly, economic development is a race for talent, not a race for companies. In a tightening labor market, companies are expanding in places that have the quality of life and amenities that provide them the ability to recruit the best employees,” Hengel said.

“Rural America needs broadband not only to help farmers efficiently produce the crops that are sold around the world but to help rural small businesses participate in the global economy and help all rural citizens experience the potentially life-changing health care, educational and employment benefits of broadband,” Hengel added.

Other benefits of rural broadband beyond creating jobs include distance learning, access to health care or telehealth services and also helping first responders foster safer communities.

TAGS: Policy
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