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What Does Microsoft’s Broadband Initiative Mean For Agriculture?

Advances in technology are rapidly transforming how those in agriculture do business. Many of these technologies are powered through the cloud, which is making broadband a necessity so that farmers can take advantage of these advancements.

Yet, more than 20 million rural Americans still lack access to this critical connection, which is defined by the FCC as a 25-Mbps connection. Although there have been initiatives to bridge the broadband gap, high costs, the absence of new and alternative technologies, and market and regulatory conditions have all slowed efforts to expand coverage.

In an attempt to address a problem that is receiving a great deal of attention but few solutions, Microsoft released a white paper recently that outlines a new national broadband strategy. The company believes that with the recent advancements in technology, newly adopted standards, business-model innovations, and a growing demand for broadened cloud services, the time is right to set a clear and ambitious path that would eliminate the rural broadband gap by 2022.

Its strategic approach combines private-sector capital investments focused on expanding broadband coverage through new technologies with targeted and affordable public-sector support.

“Our call for a new strategy reflects, in part, our experience as a company working around the world to make use of what’s called TV White Spaces spectrum,” says Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer at Microsoft. “This is unused spectrum in the UHF television bands. This powerful bandwidth is in the 600-MHz frequency range and enables wireless signals to travel over hills and through buildings and trees.”

Since it has deployed 20 TV white spaces projects in 17 countries that serve over 185,000 users, Microsoft has considerable experience in this spectrum.

The company recently worked with the Boston Consulting Group on a study to determine the best way to meet broadband coverage needs in rural America. The findings led to several conclusions.

Defining a Solution

The best approach is to rely on a mixture of technologies for rural communities. “Specifically, TV White Spaces will provide the best approach to reach the 80% of this underserved rural population who live in communities with a population density between two and 200 people per square mile,” notes Smith. “Satellite coverage should be used for areas with a population density of less than two people per square mile, and fixed wireless and limited fiber to the home should be used for communities with a density greater than 200 people per square mile.”

“While I see the potential of TV White Spaces in filling some needs, it seems to be a stop-gap solution, at best, based on what I have seen regarding the limited capabilities of the technology. For example, it has some issues that need to be resolved with respect to spectrum and the bandwidth it is able to provide,” says Cullen Robbins, director of communications with the Nebraska Public Service Commission. “I have always been optimistic that satellite could also help fulfill the needs of rural citizens, but limits in capacity and delays in upgrading satellite technology to meet the speed and latency requirements of today’s citizens have been slow to materialize, despite promises from the industry that we would have something in 2015. Fixed wireless has been for many years and continues to be one of the primary ways that many rural citizens receive internet access. I hope they can continue to invest and meet the needs of rural citizens; they are definitely part of the solution.”

Dramatic Cost Reduction

One of the biggest benefits, the report says, is that this new approach will dramatically reduce the cost of bringing broadband to rural communities.

It’s an issue Nelson Schneider had to deal with when he attempted to get a faster, more reliable connection for his Ceresco, Nebraska farm.

“I spent entire weekends without internet, because something held together with spit and chewing gum would break Friday night and no technicians would be around to poke at it or clean the ants out, which actually happened – multiple times,” he says. 

When he approached Windstream about switching to fiber as a business, the company said it would set him up with Ethernet at speeds of 3 Mbps/3 Mbps. The catch: It would cost him nearly $350,000. 

“That price didn’t include a monthly service fee of $1,000 for three years, which is absolutely insane and even more so for single-digit megabit speeds!” Schneider says.

“By relying on a mixture of technologies, the total capital and initial operating cost to eliminate the rural broadband gap would be between $8 to $12 billion. This is roughly 80% less than the cost of using fiber cables alone, and it’s over 50% cheaper than the cost of current fixed wireless technology like 4G,” notes Smith.

Rural Airband Initiative

To achieve its goal, Microsoft is prepared to invest its own resources to help serve as a catalyst for broader market adoption of this new model. The company is committed to three elements over a five-year period.

  1. Pursue direct investments with partners.
  2. Invest in digital skills training for people of all ages in newly connected communities.
  3. Stimulate investment by others through technology licensing.

While Robbins believes there is some potential to Microsoft’s attention to this issue, questions still remain about whether or not the limitations of these technologies can be overcome to meet the needs of consumers.

For nearly a decade, Nebraska has put into effect initiatives to bring faster broadband to its rural residents. However, the state is still experiencing limitations due to availability, slow speeds, and cost.

“Satellite technology in Nebraska has been expensive, unreliable, lacks speed to meet consumer demand, and some companies have been unable to add new subscribers due to capacity issues,” says Robbins. “Fixed wireless has had its own issues related to reliability and speed limitations in some areas, and determining coverage has been an issue from a policy perspective.”

Microsoft says three governmental measures are also needed.

  1. FCC needs to ensure the continued use of the spectrum needed for this mixed technology model. “Specifically, it will be important for the FCC to ensure that three channels below 700 MHz are available for wireless use on an unlicensed basis in every market in the country, with additional TV White Spaces available in smaller markets and rural areas,” notes Smith.
  2. Federal and state infrastructure investments should include targeted funds on a matching basis for the capital investments that will best expand coverage into rural areas that lack broadband.
  3. Improve data collection on rural broadband coverage.

“All in all, I am in favor of any additional funding that is earmarked for broadband buildout in rural areas,” says Robbins. “It is one of the goals of our Nebraska Universal Service Fund to support broadband in rural areas. Any additional investment from the private sector is welcome as we try to tackle this issue together.”

Any effort is a good thing but. . . 

Both AEM Senior Director for Government Affairs Nick Tindall and AEM Director for Infrastructure Policy Kate Wood believe any effort to expand broadband infrastructure and access to high-speed internet across the country is a good thing. “Microsoft deserves credit for its willingness to step forward and offer private investment in broadband access,” they say.

That said, the pair notes that Microsoft’s approach isn’t necessarily suited to handle the emerging and growing technological needs of farm machinery and production agriculture as a whole.

“We still need a commitment from elected leaders to expand mobile, rural broadband access across America’s farmland,” say Tindall and Wood. “To the extent that Microsoft’s Rural Airband Initiative will provide additional connectivity for households and individuals in rural America, it will free up resources for policy officials to address the needs of production agriculture.”

Tindall and Wood go on to say that It’s impossible to understate the importance of investing in rural broadband infrastructure for manufacturers and agricultural producers. “That is why AEM identified the importance of bridging the rural-urban connectivity gap as one of the five core pillars in their report The U.S. Infrastructure Advantage. Ensuring rural-urban connectivity requires a comprehensive, forward-looking strategy by our elected leaders that goes beyond what Microsoft is trying to achieve with its new initiative,” they say.

“In short, we appreciate the initiative taken here by Microsoft and will continue to study its impact for agricultural production,” they say. “AEM will continue to work to advance leading solutions that will fill out the gaps in this plan to help advance the needs of farmers and manufacturers.”

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