The Rural Broadband Gap: After a Year of Progress, Challenges Remain
Nobody ever said farming was easy, but 2018 was a particularly difficult year for many in agriculture: trade tensions, uncooperative weather during harvest, and bitter partisan wrangling over the now-lapsed Farm Bill all caused major headaches for producers across the country this year.
One area where some progress was achieved, and where much work remains to be done, was in digital infrastructure in rural communities. The gap between urban and rural areas’ connectivity to the internet is not only an obvious barrier to the adoption of precision ag technologies, but to the economic productivity of these areas as well.
The Census’ data on the subject is concerning: the “mostly urban” counties in the U.S. had household internet subscription rates of 75%, compared to 67% of households in “mostly rural” counties and 65% of “completely rural” ones. FCC data on the topic doesn’t contain information about internet connectivity on cropland and rangeland, either, so we don’t have a good sense of how much this gap has affected the adoption of precision techniques in these areas.
Progress recently on this issue has been mixed. Programs like the Rural Broadband Pilot Program, proposed by the USDA, have been criticized for slow internet speed standards and focus on speed instead of bandwidth in public comments on the issue.
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Thankfully, there has been some improvements at the federal level this year in increasing the availability of broadband-speed internet: the omnibus spending bill passed in March earmarked an additional $600m of funds for the USDA towards improving internet services in rural areas. This is in addition to the $700m annually the department has put up for this purpose.
Other bills concerning rural broadband are working their way through Congress right now: the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act, which would establish a task force to bring the public and private sectors together to plug gaps in broadband coverage, was passed in the House and is awaiting a Senate vote.
The House and Senate versions of the AIRWAVES Act, which would allocate 10% of proceeds from a government auction for vacant broadband spectrum towards closing the rural broadband gap, are in committee as well. The Competitive Carriers Association, which represents rural broadband interests, estimates that the bill would have a “$1.25 billion impact on agriculture”. The organization, which supports the bill, also states in a study that opening up 5G spectrum would speed up the rollout of 5G services, which has great potential in improving connectivity and data transfer for precision agriculture tools.
While this issue has attracted greater attention from the Federal Government, the private sector is stepping up to address the issue, too: Microsoft’s Airband Initiative announced a project with Agile Networks to bring broadband internet to underserved areas of Central Ohio, as a part of the wider goal of reaching 2 million people in rural America by 2022.
The long-awaited 2018 Farm Bill, which is looking like a priority for the lame-duck Congress session, will supposedly have further funding provisions for rural broadband, as well. According to Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., the bill will earmark funds for the Community Connect Program, which grants funds to organizations seeking to improve broadband infrastructure in rural communities.
Improving affordable, reliable broadband internet access in cropland and rangeland areas is key for the continued growth of precision agriculture, and for the economic growth of rural America. Removing the roadblocks towards greater connectivity between devices, organizations, and people is ongoing. Although a lot of work remains in closing the gap, it appears that some steps are being taken in the right direction to solve this issue.