Electric Cooperatives and Precision Agriculture: Addressing the Digital Divide in the U.S.
Looking at the challenges to the adoption of precision agriculture, we’ve talked often about the ‘digital divide’ that exists between rural and urban areas of the U.S. Broadband availability and reliability lags considerably behind in rural areas, bottlenecking the ability to deploy precision agriculture technology.
While recent government action (including provisions in the most recent Farm Bill, the Rural Broadband Pilot Program, among others) and efforts from the private sector have made efforts to try to lessen the gap, it is clear that this problem will take time and a considerable amount of resources to address.
Another interesting angle to combatting the digital divide is coming from the not-for-profit space as well. Electric Cooperatives in many states have also been making strides in rolling out broadband to underserved areas, and recent legislation has given cooperatives greater flexibility in expanding broadband infrastructure in rural areas.
In recent years, states that have traditionally relied on electric co-ops to deliver utilities have made attempts to negotiate the legal landscape surrounding the issue. The debate centers around whether broadband is to be considered a utility like electricity or water, or a private service; many restrictions on cooperatives providing internet connectivity stem from the question of whether cooperatives should be allowed to provide a service that could, in theory, be handled by Internet Service Providers (ISPs).
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It seems that the trend recently has been to turn more favor towards greater access. In recent years, many states have been chipping away at the regulatory burdens for cooperatives to provide broadband services, such as in Tennessee. This year alone, there have been several key victories at the state level for electric cooperatives: in Oklahoma, the State Senate passed SB 1002, a bill that would enable electric co-ops to offer broadband services across their networks; it is currently awaiting a vote in their House. Similar legislation was made law in Mississippi earlier this year, and a law passed in Georgia this year likewise enabled electric cooperatives to provide broadband services to their member-owners.
Challenges remain for electric co-ops looking to expand into broadband services in their service areas, however. There are other legal issues to contend with, beyond the ability to provide these services – in many states, there are issues with utilities providers adding onto existing infrastructure for non-electrical services (and the NRECA’s website has some documentation of these problems are being addressed).
The biggest challenge, however, is the same for these organizations as it is for the federal government and the private sector – the cost of providing a capital-intensive service in sparsely populated rural areas. Several recent measures from governments have been aimed at defraying these costs, including provisions in the recent Farm Bill to provide loans towards the “construction, improvement, and acquisition of facilities required to provide service at the broadband lending speed”.
Electric cooperatives have played a key role in bringing electricity to rural areas since the 1930s, and the approach used back then to electrify America has been revived in addressing a problem that not only affects precision agriculture, but also the economic viability of rural communities. While these challenges will not be overcome easily, it is encouraging to see public, private, and non-profit organizations working towards closing the gap in broadband connectivity.