Broadband blues

Our country is far from ensuring abundant broadband is available and affordable to all. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified these struggles.

“There are still about 42 million people in the U.S. who don't have access to high speed internet. Of those, 20 million are in rural America - in our farming communities,” says Ariel Wiegard, Federal Government Relations Lead, Syngenta. 

Because the broadband maps that measure exactly how many rural Americans lack access to high speed internet are flawed, estimates vary widely. . . from 18 million to 162 million. 

“Here’s the problem with the way the maps were built. If one person, one household, or one building in the census track has broadband, the FCC deems that the entire census track has the service,” says Jeff Johnston, lead communications economist, CoBank. “That is massively incorrect, and they’re working on fixing it.”

While the most recent version of the House’s Heroes Act includes funding for improving FCC mapping to determine where broadband is truly needed, sorting it all out is going to take time.

Current FCC Mandates Not Enough to Meet Ag Needs

To be considered high speed, FCC mandates you must be able to download data at 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload data at 3 Mbps. Not enough to move large chunks of farm data across the internet.

“To give you some perspective on those numbers, it takes about 1 Mbps to read an email. If you want to do any streaming, you need a minimum of 10 Mbps, or 25 Mbps if you’re watching HD content,” Wiegard says. “To fully utilize a lot of digital applications in agriculture, farmers will need about 100 Mbps or more.”

As technology continues to evolve, ensuring farmers have adequate broadband capabilities is only going to grow in importance.

“On the farm, our customers are running businesses. Communication of information – people-to-machine, machine-to-people, and machine-to-machine – is critical to those businesses,” says Craig Sutton, manager for advanced manufacturing and innovation, John Deere. 

The importance of connectivity, he adds, can and should be measured not just by the number of people in a place, but also by the number of crops that will impact and feed those people around the world.  

“All communities, not just urban, should be able to reap the benefits of connectivity,” Sutton says. “The intelligence within equipment today and into the future will utilize that connectivity to help farmers be even more productive, efficient, and sustainable within their operation for years to come.”

Tempering Our 5G Expectations

Many believe 5G is going to be the technology that saves us all. However, experts say we need to temper our expectations around what 5G means for rural America. Here’s why.

First, it’s expensive to build out the infrastructure.

“One estimate from Deloitte suggested it’s going to be $130 to $150 billion over five years just to install fiber cables that will enable 5G,” Wiegard says. “Another estimate is over a trillion dollars in public and private funds to fully get rural America online. While telecommunications companies are making huge investments, they’re focused on where they can recoup their costs, which is not rural America.”

Cost is the biggest challenge facing a lot of these underserved markets Johnston adds. 

“While the government has a number of programs in place to address the problem, quite frankly, they are not big enough,” he says. “Right now, there is about $35 billion allocated to bridge the digital divide over the next 10 years. We need considerably more money than that, and we need it sooner.”

Currently, the Universal Services Fund uses proceeds collected through a tax, which is assessed on landline and cell phone bills, to help pay for broadband subsidy programs. Because more people are cutting the landline cord, the government has had to raise the tax to offset the loss. 

“The tax is 26% right now. As people continue to disconnect service, the only way to be able to maintain that money is to continue increasing the USF rate. Where do you stop?” Johnston says. “It’s a fundamentally flawed mechanism that is unsustainable long term.”

In order to ensure there is enough money longer term, the government needs to reform how money is contributed to these programs. For example, CoBank has advocated the USF tax also be assessed on internet services, which are currently not included. 

Multi-pronged Approach

“Certainly, our government needs to step up, but I also think private companies need to have some skin in the game too,” Johnston says. “Bridging the digital divide is a multi-pronged approach.”

While John Deere’s recent purchase of 5G licenses in five Iowa and Illinois counties will allow it to quickly leverage the latest manufacturing technology to enhance the productivity of its machines, Johnston speculates other opportunities could come out of it.

“John Deere has spent a lot of money on precision ag technology. In a lot of cases, if an area doesn’t have connectivity, a farmer can’t take full advantage of those technologies,” he says. “Not only does this give John Deere the opportunity to improve their facilities, but it also gives the company an opportunity to help out communities by connecting farmers who don’t have service today. It will be interesting to see what comes out of this.”

Distance Limitations

In theory, 5G will allow you to do things at much faster speeds than you were able to do before. The catch is that the spectrum needed to deliver those incredibly fast data speeds is limited by distance.

“Because the 5G transmitters are small, their service area (about 500 feet) is also quite small, which is much smaller than what we see for 4G transmitters,” Wiegard says. “We will need hundreds or thousands more of them than what is needed for 4G. Where do you install those in a decentralized landscape?”

In addition, the 5G signal isn’t powerful enough to get around landscape like mountains, barns, or large trees, so small cells in a rural landscape will need to be organized to avoid potential obstructions.

While 5G’s potential to transform rural America does show promise, both Wiegard and Johnston say it’s going to be a long time before it is available. 

“I don’t want rural stakeholders to think 5G is going to solve their internet problems today or even tomorrow,” Wiegard says. “It could be many years before rural areas see that level of service, because we still need an unprecedented investment in infrastructure that will require many technical experts and man hours.”

Once this is accomplished only then can we use 5G transmitters to wirelessly relay service over the last mile.

“In that time, urban areas will continue to become more technologically advanced,” Wiegard says. “The urban-rural digital divide will continue to grow without serious intervention.”

One of the best things farmers can do, she says, is contact their elected representatives and tell them they urgently need better internet and why. “The government is working on solving the problem, but we need to keep the pressure on.”

“The pandemic, as unfortunate as the situation is, has helped bring these issues to the forefront like they’ve never been before. Hopefully, good things come out of it,” Johnston says.

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