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DROP THE IMAGE: For many in rural areas this is what a farm looks like, but today's commercial operations are more advanced than many consumers understand. And they need high-speed web access.

Rural areas need high-speed access, really

Another Voice: Support for broadband is important — as is getting all the details right.

It’s kind of appalling, really. I’m talking about the image of the American farmer in the mind of the consumer. For many, the idea of the “Green Acres” rube pushing away on an old open-station, no-ROPS (Rollover Protective Structure) tractor is still common. Yet today’s modern farmer and rancher is deploying technology and tools in ways many non-farmers would barely understand. Trouble is, we’re being hobbled by the lack of something many take for granted — high-speed internet.

Yes, I’m venting a bit about the challenge of building a modern business on a communication infrastructure that, at times, seems just barely a step or two above two soup cans and some string. I’m also concerned about losing focus when the buzz hits about new technology, and how that can draw government attention away from the work that really needs to be done. The new shiny thing doesn’t always get the work done in the country.

I’m talking about 5G — the super-fast, wow-tech all the cell carriers are promoting. Sure, that technology may offer some astounding opportunities, once they figure out a way to move that signal farther than the few feet it does now (yes, 5G in some forms requires a lot more transmitter-receivers than 4G).

We need more affordable broadband in the country, but from where I sit, cellular service doesn’t always have the answer. USDA is filling the gap with money Congress has provided in what the ag agency calls ReConnect. The loan, grant and loan-grant program will, over two years, put more than $1 billion into local projects. In some cases, really local projects — where just a few hundred homes, farms and ranches benefit. It’s a great way to tackle the problem, and it’s critical.

The cellular conundrum

It’s fantastic that land-based broadband is getting more investment and attention. Yet we can’t leave out cellular, because it’s important, too.

I worry about the 5G shiny object getting attention that will not net farmers and ranchers any benefit. Right now, the key is coverage. For cell service, which many new farm equipment products use, we need coverage, and 4G is great. Turning attention to 5G before we have full-country coverage of 4G is not good.

Farmers need that service, and 4G is a proven, reliable backbone to move data from field to office efficiently. We’re generating more information from equipment and other data-gathering tools than ever before, and we need a reliable wireless infrastructure to get that done. So, let’s finish 4G first.

But in the end, we need reliable broadband service across as much spectrum as we can get. Sure, we talk about data gathering and better farm management, but what about all those future consumer demands?

The consumer is going to require us to track our food from dirt to fork. How will that happen? Why, blockchain, of course — but in the end for all that to work, we need solid, reliable Web coverage everywhere, all the time.

While consumers may view you as antiquated in your work, they’re demanding 21st-century data, and you’ll be expected to step up. USDA is helping. Best talk to our lawmakers, too, to make sure they understand: Tools like 5G may be great, but can we finish the 4G coverage job first?

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