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Is pressure building for better broadband?

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SUPERHIGHWAY? Data flying from field to office and beyond at high speed is kind of a pipe dream in the country, especially when there’s no “pipe.” Rural broadband must become a priority for a food-secure future.
Another Voice: We've been talking about this problem in the country for years — too bad it took a pandemic for someone to notice.

David Kohl, the well-known ag economist who works to challenge farmers in every way he can, often focuses on a key issue — being a lifelong learner. I get that, and in the past few weeks, I’ve had a lot to learn, with our world turned upside down as we go from live to virtual. But frankly, it’s hard to be a lifelong learner when you can’t get the information you need.

Every conversation about school, agricultural technology, virtual meetings and more hinges on one factor — a good internet connection. Trouble is that surveys show that’s not happening in the country. And frankly, I’m frustrated.

I've covered agricultural technology for a few decades, and in the last 20 years, our reliance on higher-speed web access has become crucial. Then along comes a pandemic, closing schools, but not stopping the need to educate. The pandemic also ends in-person meetings for many, with most turning to virtual meetings.

Well, that’s great if you can connect — but if not, it’s a sorry situation. And it’s keeping children from being educated. That should get someone’s attention.

In covering ag technology, I’ve also watched billions being poured into programs to expand broadband into the country, but a recent news report from CBS showed that no one knows exactly how that money was spent, given that more than a third of the country doesn’t have access to broadband. And that’s not by choice. Even if they could afford it, they couldn’t connect.

A competitive and food challenge

Globally, high-speed web access is much more than about catching the latest movie on Netflix. This is about competitiveness. Connectivity will be crucial to meeting growing needs for traceability and transparency in the food system. It will also be more important as farmers work to capture better information on their farm to enhance farm efficiency, or take advantage of new income opportunities.

Beth Ford, the forward-thinking CEO of the cooperative Land O’Lakes, has taken on this issue and attracted national attention to it. She’s calling on business to step up, and at the beginning of the big lockdown in March, the cooperative’s retail locations actually provided public Wi-Fi so students without web access could park at the co-op and get work done.

While that’s an amazing idea, and gesture, for rural communities, it’s also a sorry statement of the problem we face. Yet if we’re going to manage our water use with “Internet of Things” tools, capture machine telemetry to boost application and work efficiency, trace food with blockchain, or pull data together to measure carbon capture, we’re going to need a bigger digital pipe.

There’s a lot of talk of an REA (Rural Electrification Administration) for the internet, and in some form, USDA has got one. Since 2018, nearly $800 million has been available through the ReConnect program. The money is available either as a loan, a grant or a loan-grant combo. These are designed to be targeted investments to bolster connectivity in rural areas, and the agency is delivering funds.

Taking on the challenge

For farmers, who are often leaders in the rural community, it’s time to raise your voice. Connect with rural communities that might be taking advantage of ReConnect or other programs to boost the Web in your area, and make sure they know those “last-mile” connections need to come out of town into the country. Sure, a town with better broadband is a great asset in any county, but you need that connectivity on the farm.

Oh, and if you’re waiting for 5G in the country? Don’t hold your breath. Why? Well, how is your 4G?

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