Super-fast internet is hard to come by in Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier. The Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative, which serves 5,000 square miles in seven counties, wants to change that.
The cooperative will break ground this summer on a six-year project to bring fiber-optic internet directly to homes and businesses.
“Our real focus is just the fiber to the home,” says Craig Eccher, president and CEO of Tri-County. He says the first high-speed customers could be switched on as early as this fall. “This is a building block to allow many, many different services into these rural areas.”
Eccher thinks direct-to-the-home fiber is the wave of the future, and — as of right now — the only true way to deliver the high-speed internet experience many rural people and farmers are missing.
While 5G, the next generation of wireless internet, is seen as the backbone for self-driving cars and trucks and the “internet of things,” experts don’t see it as a silver bullet to get high-speed internet to more farms.
Betsy Huber, president of the National Grange, says money is the biggest hurdle to getting more rural areas connected. In most cases, smaller telecom companies are providing the connections to farms.
“Economically, it’s just not there for small companies to do this,” she says.
Huber sits on the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee and is essentially its voice of agriculture. While Grange is technology-neutral, Huber says the biggest issue is equal access for people in rural areas.
“In the 1920s, the Grange advocated for telephone service. It’s just the next step for connecting rural areas so they have the same economic benefits as urban people,” she says.
WIRED AND WIRELESS: New 5G networks might not be conducive to installation in rural places. The likely scenario is a mix of wired and wireless systems to connect farmers. (Photo by jatrax/Getty Images)
Getting the economics right
Jeff Johnston, lead communications economist for CoBank, says rural telecom companies are taking a wait-and-see approach to rolling out the next generation of high-speed internet, including 5G.
Many companies in rural areas have already rolled out 4G LTE networks where it makes sense to do so. But he says there has to be an incentive for these companies to invest in newer technologies, since they are costly and risky to put in.
“In order for a technology to succeed or a new business model to succeed, you need the support of at least one national operator to do a number of things,” says Johnston. Verizon’s success in 5G will be critical, he says, as it will cause the companies that provide the phones, bay stations and other technologies for 5G to be more willing to invest.
“If Verizon, after a couple of years from now, looks back and says it didn't work well, if they began to de-emphasize that part of their business, then what happens is, the Nokias, Ericssons and Qualcomm will be not be as excited about investing in this,” he says.
Eccher says the timing was good for the cooperative to move forward with the project this year. From July 24 to Aug. 21 of last year, the Federal Communications Commission doled out $1.49 billion through its Connect America Fund to companies around the country to expand broadband and voice services in rural locations.
Tri-County got $32 million over 10 years. Along with that, the cooperative also got a $1.5 million grant from the state and $15.6 million from the Pennsylvania Broadband Investment Incentive Program.
“We secured pretty close to $50 million, which takes a lot of risk off the table,” Eccher says. “It allowed us to work with existing lenders to shore up the total financing package. Our biggest challenge is managing the expectations of our membership, because everybody wants it now.”
While high-speed internet will be more widely available, Johnston says there won’t be one single solution.
“But we need to have tempered expectations with how much of an impact it will have in rural America,” he says. “It will be a hybrid, fixed and wireless, and maybe existing service providers that will essentially use Wi-Fi technologies. Perhaps these folks will do it. It will be a little bit of a mixed bag on how this rolls out.”
When it comes to smart farming, you won’t need as much bandwidth as streaming a 4K video.
“They tend to associate agriculture IoT [internet of things] with 5G. I’m not so sure that’s the right way to think about it,” he says. “When you think about what’s happening in rural America, it’s not high-‘def’ video. It’s small amounts of data. You don’t need the amount of bandwidth to do this, the payloads of data. I don’t think this needs to be really big.”
Eccher says they have plans for a more modest rollout of 5G wireless in more rural areas.
“We are also looking at wireless for agricultural operations, for driverless tractors, something like that. Perhaps a small 5G deployment in the 2.4-gigahertz range, which gives you good coverage,” he says.
Larry Thompson, CEO of Vantage Point Solutions, the company that’s designing Tri-County’s broadband project, says he sees many companies doing similar projects as Tri-County — so long as there is funding to do it.
“With fiber all the way to the home, the economics actually favor putting that last little bit of fiber in, especially in rural areas,” Thompson says. “One of the reasons for it: You can depreciate the fiber cable for many more years. With wireless, you have to replace equipment much more often.”
Thompson says the hype over 5G is overblown.
“There is no doubt 5G will be improvements over 4G, but it’s still not probably going to live up to all the hype,” he says. “The trade journals jump on board with half-truths, saying it will do 10 gigabits per second to the home. But the reality is not true, and only under ideal conditions.”
With more and more combines and tractors connected to the internet, Huber hopes faster internet will catch up, eventually.
“All the equipment now has all the yield monitors and fertilizer and spray controls and all of that. If you’re going to buy machinery that has that on it, you certainly want to be able to use it,” she says.