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Dead-End Data

Ag data is only as good as the connection.

As associate professor and Extension specialist for precision agriculture at the University of Nebraska, Joe Luck is a strong proponent of using agricultural data management strategies and technology for improving crop production efficiency. 

As a resident of rural Nebraska, he also has first-hand experience with the way ag technology has advanced at a faster pace than the connectivity network needed to support its use nationwide. 

“We actually live about 5 miles north of Lincoln, and the best I can get at home is 15 MB per second with broadband internet,” Luck says. “I know what farmers in rural Nebraska are going through when they try to upload files to the cloud or share maps and information with service providers. The irony is that you can often get faster internet speeds with a cell phone plan. Yet, some of those plans typically start to choke you down on speed after you hit a certain data level.”

According to the Nebraska Information Technology Commission, approximately one in 10 rural Nebraskans in 2018 reported significant limitations from their internet service. Moreover, even though broadband is available to 89% of Nebraskans, only 66% of rural Nebraskans have broadband access.

Rural Broadband Task Force Investigates Solutions

Whether it’s remotely controlling a center pivot system, tracking the performance and position of a combine in the field, uploading data from a soil moisture probe, downloading an infrared image of your field from a service provider, or sending real-time data to a digital strategy provider, farmers nationwide have an increasing amount of data available to them – if only they can receive or use it. 

“Some technology can be transmitted via a radio signal, but that’s often limited by line of sight and distance, and you’re limited to certain frequencies and signal strength or power before you need a license,” he says, noting that some data, such as infrared field images, need timely attention.

It’s little wonder that states like Nebraska and Maryland have established a Rural Broadband Task Force to investigate solutions. 

While Maryland might not be thought of as a state where affordable, reliable high-speed internet is spotty, that’s not the case. It’s why Governor Larry Hogan signed Senate Bill 717/House Bill 1169 – Connecting Rural Maryland Act of 2017, which established the Task Force on Rural Internet, Broadband, Wireless and Cellular Service. One of the recommendations in the group’s report was that rural electric cooperatives consider the option of running fiber optic cable or leasing their unused fiber to other providers. 

Meanwhile, the 14-member Nebraska Rural Broadband Task Force, which was appointed by Governor Pete Ricketts in 2018, is due to submit a report of its findings and recommendations to the state legislature by November 1, 2019. 

The lack of broadband internet and reliable cell service hasn’t escaped the attention of Washington D.C., either. Congressional bill H.R. 800 New Deal Rural Broadband Act of 2017 would have established the Office of Rural Broadband Initiatives within the U.S. Department of Agriculture to “preserve open internet requirements and for other purposes.” 

However, it was never acted on and died with the new Congress in 2019.

Other Initiatives Address Ag Tech Needs, Verify Coverage Data

In the meantime, Congressmen Bob Latta (R-OH) and Dave Loebsack (D-IA) introduced the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act of 2018. That bill requires the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to form a task force in conjunction with the USDA to evaluate the best ways to meet the technological needs of precision agriculture. 

Among the goals of the bill is to achieve reliable broadband internet capabilities on 95% of agricultural land in the U.S. by 2025. 

At last report, the bill had been received in the Senate, read twice, and referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Just this past May, Congressman Latta, along with Congressman Peter Welch (D-VT), also introduced the bipartisan Broadband Mapping After Scrutiny (MAPS) Act, which would require the FCC to verify fixed and mobile broadband service coverage data.

“It is essential that broadband maps accurately depict broadband deployment, especially in rural areas,” Congressman Welch says. “The first step in solving a problem is admitting there is one.”

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