Late last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced plans to add $600 million to fund e-Connectivity, a pilot program aimed at bridging the rural digital divide by improving broadband internet access for American farmers. But the rural digital divide is wider than ever, as farmers struggle to run tech-dependent businesses without broadband.
According to a 2016 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) report, 39% of rural Americans don’t have broadband internet access but Daiquiri Ryan, a policy fellow at the non-profit Public Knowledge, says that number is almost certainly inaccurate.
“All of that data that the FCC collects…is self-reported by internet providers and it’s only done by the census block, [which] means if one person on the census block is served by that provider…the entire census block is considered served.” But in very rural, sparsely populated areas, says Ryan, that one house with service might be the only one with actual service for miles, so when the entire area of the map shows up as served, it’s not an accurate picture.
Worse yet, though members of Congress often complain about the lack of good quality data during rural broadband hearings, Ryan says no one seems to want to fix the problem. “[T]hey’re not doing much to fund better data collection, [which is] the first hump.”
In today’s farming operations, almost all aspects of production are enhanced by technology. “We have technology in our processing [operations], our feed mill systems” as well as trucks and tractors, explains Shawn Tiffany, owner and operator of Tiffany Cattle, a cattle feedlot located in Herington, Kansas. Tiffany happens to be a strong proponent of traditional farming techniques like cover cropping, but his cattle farm also relies on computers for tasks like calculating the feed for the cows and for tracking customer data.
Consumers may assume technology is only used on industrial-size farms, but that’s not true. Virtually all farmers today rely on technology in their day-to-day work, including those who run smaller, more boutique operations. Brian Fiscalini is one of the owners of Fiscalini Cheese Company, a farmstead cheesemaking and farming operation located in Modesto, California, and he recently spoke at the International Food Information Council Food Innovation Summit in Washington, D.C., to say, amongst other things, yes, even artisanal cheese makers rely on technology.
Jodi DeHate, who grew up on a dairy farm and today works with a number of dairy producers in rural Michigan, says today’s dairy farms are sophisticated operations, using sensors to detect everything from butterfat content to whether a cow might be sick. Even though she has the experience to tell when a cow isn’t feeling well, the technology provides more precise data, which helps guide farmers in making difficult decisions about their cows’ lives and welfare.
On the farm, spotty or limited internet coverage can be a costly problem. “Whether you’re on Wall Street or out here in the middle of Kansas, data equals dollars,” says Tiffany. Tiffany also sits on the board of directors for local rural telecom provider Tri-County Telecom Association or TCT, whose coverage relies on a fiber optic network. Tiffany’s original feedlot is in Herington, so computers at that location run on that fiber optic network, but his newer feedyard falls outside of TCT’s coverage area. As a result, he says, the second feedlot’s wireless system just isn’t as good. In the past year, he’s made frequent calls to a technician to try and get the system working, but it continues to be an ongoing problem.
In Michigan, DeHate says it’s a fact of rural farming life now that virtually all of the local equipment dealers have to have employees on staff dedicated solely to tech support. And farmers often find themselves having to get creative, MacGyver-ing their way to tech solutions by taking “the flash drive from their from their tractors…and [downloading]…information [onto] the computer in the house or vice versa.”
Coverage over the vast but sparsely populated areas in which DeHate lives and works is a constant challenge, especially since her work covers four different rural counties. “Once you get past the little villages or towns, [it’s] either wireless…or you’re stuck with satellite or [using] your phone as a hotspot.” DeHate has heard from farmers using the Wi-Fi at their local McDonald’s just to get their work done.
Lack of service doesn’t just impact the farm’s business, but the farmer’s family, too. Kids might be able to check out iPads or computers from school, but without good wireless service, the computers won’t work. DeHate says it’s especially worrisome if you can’t get service and you’re out working in the field, because “if you do have an accident, you [have to] hope you can actually walk somewhere or…make sure somebody can get to you.”
From a policy perspective, Public Knowledge’s Ryan says there are multiple roadblocks to getting rural Americans the coverage they need: “A lot of carriers don’t want to build out to these areas, because it’s very expensive, and it doesn’t turn a profit for them.” Worse than that, says Ryan, in many places the existing copper is rotting and there’s a backlog of repair requests. “[People call and are told] we only have five technicians for the entire state, so it’s going to take a couple of weeks.” Ryan says the FCC has rolled back a number of regulations and now “there’s really no complaint process.”
Tiffany, who sits on the board of a rural telecom provider and is familiar with its business challenges, is sympathetic to the position rural carriers find themselves in as it’s tough to make a financial case for some of these services when the return on investment just isn’t there. That’s why the government funding was put in place to begin with, but Tiffany is worried about the new farm bill funding provisions, saying they seem to favor wireless technology rather than an investment in the necessary infrastructure. “I’m not going to say we’ll never get fiber but it’s going to make it very very difficult to put [new] fiber in [at this point].”
Ryan says the USDA has at least moved closer to implementation with new funding to its e-Connectivity program, and one good feature is that almost any entity can apply, including telecom providers and municipalities. But it’s also true that investment in underlying infrastructure is still lacking. According to Ryan, “[the] trend right now, especially with the the Senate majority and the House majority in the GOP is to say things like satellite service is the future. 5G is the future, [or] wireless internet [is the future but]…we know [that] in real life…a wireless connection [isn’t] the same quality of service as you get over a fixed line.”