Perspective: Broadband Internet In Rural America

A few years ago I had the chance to chat with Craig Venter. At that time he was the director of the Celera Genomics doing breakthrough work in DNA sequencing. We were discussing leadership and motivation and I accused him of having it easy because all he had to do was point out to people his noble cause — mapping the human DNA.
 
Over the years I have had a great time bringing technology solutions to business problems in agriculture, but they were hardly noble. Certainly the people I’ve worked with and the projects we brought to life were vital and fun, but the noble cause remained elusive — until now.
 
Since accepting a role with the Broadband Alliance for Agriculture, I have been a part of an organization with a noble goal — affordable broadband connectivity to rural America. We seek to achieve this through awareness, education and research programs. Unfortunately, most growers are stuck on 1995 speeds. For those of you on high-speed connections, try to remember what it was like to have dropped calls, slow screens, busy signals and sluggish email. It’s no wonder that people on dial up spend 95% less time on-line than those with a high-speed connection.
 
Based upon data in the August 2007 USDA report on Farm Computer Usage and Ownership, 28% of our 2,000,000 U.S. farms have a high-speed Internet connection. You may be tempted to think that the folks in the city have it much better. Well they do, but it’s the people in the city of another country. A few years ago the U.S. was 12th in the percentage of its population using broadband. With quick stop at 15th, the U.S. is now sitting in 25th place.
 
So we’ve got a problem — but won’t the 2007 Farm Bill go a long way towards solving it? The 2007 Farm Bill will most likely have significant funding available in the form of loans to private entrepreneurs who want to venture into rural areas. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa has been nothing short of heroic in addressing these issues. As an optimist, my hopes are high, but I suspect even if it exceeds the mandatory funding of the 2002 Farm bill – $100 million — it will fall far short of having any meaningful impact. Some of this is due to the amount of the funding and some is the lack of an overall architecture. It’s like giving a million people each a brick and telling them to go build a house.
 
According to an article in the Broadband Bulletin, $2.157 billion in financing funds were made available in FY 2005 to rural service providers through the broadband program of the Rural Development Office. As of December of that year, applications amounting to $825 million were approved. The rest was left unspent. I have heard that the loan approval process required substantial legal and financial resources to create the 1,000 pages of documentation required. So even if there is adequate funding, and an infrastructure architecture suddenly appears, the USDA needs to smooth out the application process.
 
Now let’s turn to internet usage on the farm. We have data from the Pew report that shows that 60% of rural adults use the internet from any location. The USDA report says that 55% of U.S. farms have internet access. The percentage of U.S. farms using the internet goes up to 66% if you exclude all farms with Gross Farm Incomes less than $250,000. As Yogi Berra would say, “If people are going to stay away, how can you stop them.” But the fact remains that between one-third and one-half of the 2,000,000 American farms are not on the internet and not using email.
 
As a technology person, I quickly embraced the internet as a resource. If I needed a manual, I looked on the internet. If I needed a patch to a program, I looked on the internet. If I needed to find out how to do something with hardware, I looked on the internet. The internet had the “stuff” I needed.
 
As an industry we’ve done a good job providing elevator prices, weather, crop history, and more USDA statistical reports than anyone has time to read. The Ag internet for the most part, pushes information at the farmer. We expect him to download all of our PDFs, label information, guides and charts and absorb them like he did 20 years ago. We’re just using the internet instead of the post office.
 
I invite you to ask yourself the question “Can my customer get any information from the internet that he can’t get from the mail?” If the answer is “no,” then we’ve failed to prepare. The next wave is video, peer to peer, collaboration, customization, modeling, and expert web applications. We will be “smartening” the supply chain and sending the farmer intelligence about his operation. In return we will get information about his operation that will allow us as an industry to plan and forecast. When this happens, the farmer will be clamoring for a high-speed connection because the reason to log on is there.
 
This will be a journey full of ups and downs, but it will be a fun one. And it certainly qualifies as a noble cause — join us won’t you?
 
Robert Paarlberg is the Executive Director of The Broadband Alliance for Agriculture. Learn more by visiting http://www.broadbandalliance.org

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