The panel name at the recent Consumer Electronics Show — held virtually — would catch the attention of anyone in farm country struggling to run a business. “Broadband for All” was to explore the challenge of an issue that’s touching farmers and inner-city folks alike.
Organizers at CES tapped three sources to discuss the issue. Shirley Bloomfield is CEO of the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association: The Rural Broadband Association. Boutheina Guermazi is a director with the World Bank. And Nancy Post is director of the Intelligent Solutions Group at John Deere.
Looking at the multifaceted challenge of broadband access, Bloomfield notes that the value of online transactions from rural America tops $1.4 trillion. “Layer on top of that the social good of connectivity, distance learning, telemedicine, precision agriculture and smarter farming,” she adds.
The challenge, Post adds, is that farmers need better access to broadband connectivity to feed the world. Noting the predicted rise in the global population , and how that will tax resources, she comments that the technology in use today can “help our customers make smarter decisions faster, and more precision technology is in use on their farms. Without connectivity, we cannot help enable that.”
Guermazi offers a global look at the challenge, noting that digital connectivity is important for development around the world. She says connectivity can make a difference, and the pandemic pointed that out.
Looking at Africa, she comments that a review of 12 African countries showed that people living within access to high-speed internet were 3% to 3.9% more likely to have jobs that those without internet access.
The big ag gap
Farmers in rural areas know broadband access is a crapshoot. By some measures, as many as 42 million people living outside major cities lack broadband access, and many are farmers and ranchers.
Bloomfield explains that one challenge is knowing who really doesn’t have broadband access. “We’ve passed legislation to have better mapping; there are some numbers we don’t even know,” she says. “The numbers range from 42 million to 19 million. We need to make that commitment in this country to know where the problems lie.”
Map accuracy is an issue. For example, if one portion of a large Western county has access to the web, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission classifies the entire county as having broadband access. Bloomfield notes legislation has been passed to solve the problem, but then FCC was provided no funds. A more defined map can help with targeting the issues. Significant money from USDA is already targeted at solving the problem.
Post adds that the pandemic accelerated attention to the digital tools many farmers have been adopting for their farms. Remote support from dealerships became more important, but was limited when high-speed web access wasn’t available.
“This is so important to our farmers and ranchers; they not only need broadband, they need highly reliable and highly capable broadband,” she says. “Machines have hundreds of sensors collecting data to automate systems and make adjustments in the field. They need to be connected, and we can help them make decisions and optimize work in the field.”
Need to work together
At the end of the panel, the key message was a focus on the need for all players — providers and users — to be at the table to discuss how to solve these issues. The pandemic shined a harsh light on the digital infrastructure and found it wanting. The World Bank’s Guermazi notes that a stronger public and private partnership is needed, adding that each party brings different value to the challenge. “The private sector can’t do this alone. They need policy and work in a regulatory environment,” she says.
Adds Post: “Overall, we can bring people together to recognize the gaps we have and solve that going forward.”