Gov. Eric Holcomb pledged $100 million in grants for rural broadband development across Indiana late last year. He followed that up with a grant program for utilities and other businesses that wanted to qualify for funds to begin broadband projects that would increase service in rural and unserved or underserved areas. The deadline to apply for that wave of grants is past, and they’re under evaluation.
However, that doesn’t mean the push for rural broadband has waned. Instead, it’s grown stronger. The Legislature recently rolled the $100 million Holcomb had committed into the state budget for the next two-year cycle.
“The Legislature officially allocated the money in the final state budget, which passed,” says Justin Schneider, director of state government relations for Indiana Farm Bureau. “We’re expecting more grant programs as time goes by. There will still be money after the first wave of grants are evaluated.”
Promoting rural broadband and seeing it delivered to the last mile is a top priority for IFB, from President Randy Kron on down through the ranks. Kron, an Evansville farmer, says he has much better internet service at his farm in Posey County than at his home farm, even though it’s much closer to Evansville.
“It’s a matter of which utilities put in what kind of service,” he explains. “There is fiber optic cable serving the area where we farm in Posey County, but not where we live. If we want to upload large files, we go over there to do it.”
Extending rural broadband service into farming communities across the country continues to be a policy of USDA at the federal level. And USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue not only talks the talk, but also walks the walk, backing up his claims with action.
Recently, Perdue and USDA released a report, “A Case for Rural Broadband: Insights on Rural Broadband Infrastructure and Next Generation Precision Agriculture Technologies.”
“Broadband and next-generation precision agriculture are critical components for creating vital access to world-class resources, tools and opportunity for America’s farmers, ranchers, foresters and producers,” Perdue says.
The report contends that if broadband infrastructure and digital technologies at scale were available today at a level that meets estimated producer demand, the U.S. economy could realize benefits equivalent to nearly 18% of total ag production. Of that 18%, the report found that more than one-third is dependent on broadband e-connectivity. The upshot, the report states, is that high-speed, reliable internet in rural areas across the country could return at least $18 billion in annual economic benefits.
Perdue says the report is important because it’s the first time a group focused on the interdependency between rural connectivity and precision ag technologies and attempted to quantify the benefits.
Perdue pledges that going forward, USDA will engage in multiple facets of infrastructure and technology deployment. This will include financing rural capital investment and supporting producers who explore which precision technologies best serve their needs.
Perdue didn’t announce specific funding proposals when releasing the report. Instead, he focused on how the report puts dollar amounts to what many people have suspected for a long time: that precision technology can add value to agriculture, but it needs “to the last mile” rural broadband infrastructure to do it.