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Rural Electric, Phone, and Internet Infrastructure Needs

These days, you can plant a crop, talk on the phone, and relay thousands of data points back to the farm office all from the comfort of your tractor cab. Over the last 100 years, waves of technology including electric services, telecommunications, and internet have dramatically shaped the way we live and do business.

For farmers and ranchers like Whitney Klasna of Lambert, Montana, all three of these systems are critical. In addition to working on the family cattle operation and dryland small grain farm, Klasna serves as a national officer for the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association and maintains an active presence on social media.

In recent years, a handful of Klasna’s social media videos have been so popular, she sold the licensing rights and now gets a regular stream of income from them. These clips were posted from her cell phone while “out in the middle of nowhere, Montana.” Her life would look much different without this connectivity, she says.

“As far as being able to live and thrive out here in rural Montana, I think it’s imperative to the health of the community. It has allowed people my age to come back to the farm and ranch, and to live and work on the farm every day, but also be able to make other income, whether it be through these viral videos, or working remotely for another company, or running a home-based business.”

This article is the third in a three-part series looking at the role of transportation and infrastructure in the agriculture industry. We’re taking a look at the systems used behind the scenes to get agriculture products from gate to plate, pod to pump, and dock to dish.

ElectricITY

It wasn’t until the Rural Electrification Act (REA) of 1936 that most U.S. farms got electricity. At that time, 90% of farms didn’t have electric power because it was too expensive to get lines to the area. According to the USDA, by 1950, almost 80% of farms got electric service. Rural electric cooperatives still serve more than 5.5 million customers today.

These days, it’s easy to forget how much you depend on electricity until it goes out. No power may mean inconveniences such as no lights, no charging your phone, and no morning coffee, but prolonged power outages can be catastrophic.

In rural America, electricity is important for managing light, temperature, waste, and feed in many livestock housing setups. Some irrigation rigs rely on electricity. Dairy farms and producers who must keep their products cool are especially at risk for devastating losses when the power goes out. While many farms are prepared with backup generators to keep critical systems functioning in the short term, electric infrastructure also helps support both telecom and internet systems.

In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the U.S. energy system a D+ grade. Like other types of infrastructure in the country, many electric transmission and distribution lines have passed their design life and don’t meet modern capacity needs. 

In 2015, 3,571 power outages in the U.S. were reported.

“Without greater attention to aging equipment, capacity bottlenecks, and increased demand, as well as increasing storm and climate impacts, Americans will likely experience longer and more frequent power interruptions,” the report said.

There are several challenges to improving the energy infrastructure in the U.S. Increased regulation makes planning for the future difficult, industry groups say.

The ASCE report adds, “Due to private ownership, national security concerns, and costs of service, there is limited public visibility into infrastructure investment levels and needs across electricity, oil and gas, and alternative energy sources.”

PHONE

Telecommunications started changing rural America more than 100 years ago. According to The Rural Broadband Association (NTCA), farmers began using telephones and forming mutual or cooperative systems in the late 1800s. The system grew to include more than 6,000 mutual systems at its peak in 1927, but poor accounting and upkeep led to declining service. By 1940, fewer farmers had phones than in 1920.

NTCA credits 1949 amendments to the REA for making low-interest loans available to the rural telephone systems and jump-starting the continuing growth of high-quality telephone service at reasonable rates for rural America.

The adoption of telephones made communication for everyone, including farmers, much faster and more efficient. In rural areas, phone service could make the difference between life and death.

In the last 75 years, the telecommunications industry has come a long way. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was created in 1934 with the goal of “making available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States a rapid, efficient, nationwide and worldwide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges…”

Internet

Since then, the industry has expanded to include much more than landline phone service. NTCA member companies began offering cellular, cable TV, and satellite services. Later, many companies launched fiber, wireless, and long-distance services, the NTCA website explains.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 overhauled telecommunications law and included new technologies that have changed the way people around the country work and live.

“The goal of this new law is to let anyone enter any communications business – to let any communications business compete in any market against any other,” the FFC website explains.

Part of the challenge for unserved or underserved folks in rural America is that their area is not competitive to serve and likely never will be.

The 2018 Broadband Deployment Report from the FCC acknowledges that rural and tribal areas continue to lag behind urban areas in mobile broadband deployment. “Approximately 14 million rural Americans and 1.2 million Americans living on tribal lands still lack mobile LTE broadband at speeds of 10 Mbps/3 Mbps.” 

The report found other forms of internet access were less available in rural communities, as well.

In 2017, Senators Cory Gardner and Margaret Wood Hassan introduced the bipartisan AIRWAVES Act. According to Congress.gov, part of this bill included a requirement that the “FCC must allocate 10% of proceeds from each of the spectrum band auctions specified in the bill to expand wireless infrastructure in rural areas that are underserved or unserved.”

This specific bill died when the 115th Congress ended, but it is possible that a similar bill will be introduced in the current session or wrapped into other legislation.

Although a plan to deploy high-speed internet to all rural Americans isn’t clear at this point, the importance is well documented. 

A USDA report from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity published in October 2017 says, “Enabling technological innovation in agriculture will improve the efficiency of the American farmer, increase sustainable use of American resources, and enhance the quality of American agricultural output, all while creating new American jobs and increasing rural incomes.”

For example, many precision agriculture tools require an internet connection to reach their full potential. Data from USDA’s 2010 Agricultural Resource Management Survey shows yield mapping, guidance systems, and soil mapping with variable-rate technology may create average production cost savings of $13.45 to $25.01 per acre. 

In addition to economic and agronomic benefits, there may be positive environmental impacts as farmers are better able to manage water and crop inputs.

The report also identified several other ways high-speed internet service could benefit people in rural communities. 

Expanded educational opportunities could be available to residents of these areas. 

With the right infrastructure, telemedicine could change the way people interact with their doctor. Instead of sacrificing several hours for a trip to the city, patients could video-chat with their medical provider from the comfort of their homes. Mental health advocates say support services, including webinars and online counseling services, are more accessible to farmers in crisis via the internet.

With successful broadband deployment, who knows how it may change housing, transportation, utilities, and other factors of community sustainability in rural America.

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