For Farmers and Ranchers, Rural Internet Is More Crucial than Ever

As rural businesses and politicians push to close the rural broadband gap, differences of opinion remain as to how fast is fast enough.

by Trevor McDonald, Hannibal Courier-Post / March 19, 2018
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(TNS) — Broadband internet access is more crucial now than ever before for ranchers and farmers in Northeast Missouri, and finding ways to reach underserved rural areas in the region are top priorities for stakeholders from the local area all the way to Washington, D.C.

Marion County Farm Bureau President Joe Kendrick said farmers and ranchers depend on internet access for various tasks every day, including Global Positioning System (GPS) guidance for farm equipment and vital data collection and transmission. For organizations and providers at the local and state levels, expanding high-speed internet is mentioned as a top priority. But stakeholders differ on what speed level is suitable and which methods would work best for each region doing without access.

Farm Bureau members appealed for more emphasis on rural broadband during a recent Capitol Connection. Kendrick said Representatives and Senators were receptive to the topics that affect agriculture and residents in rural areas.

"I was impressed," Kendrick said. "When we said we were from Farm Bureau, we had their attention."

Expanding access to high-speed internet in rural areas is among the top three priorities for the Missouri Farm Bureau. Kendrick said that the actual data speeds are a point of contention, because there is a wide discrepancy between available service in metropolitan areas compared to some proposals for rollouts in rural areas.

Some discussions called for a 10-megabyte download, one-megabyte download speed, which Kendrick compared to traveling 25 mph down the highway; Missouri Farm Bureau is advocating for a faster 25-megabyte/three-megabyte option — which he said is still measurably slower than the service available in metropolitan areas.

In the field, Kendrick and other farmers regularly collect data like soil conditions, dew points, temperature and wind speed before sending it to a cloud-based system. From there, they make real-time decisions regarding factors like seed population and fertilizer rates — Kendrick said the data needs to be collected and accessed quickly for successful production in a global agricultural economy.

"It's very important because more and more of what we do is internet-based," he said.

A federal program moves closer to making connections in rural America

In 2011, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established the Connect America Universal Services program aimed at identifying and connecting rural regions of America lacking high-speed broadband internet service. Mark Wigfield, with the FCC, said the second phase of the Connect America program will consist of a nationwide auction in July that will cover regions commission officials selected based on weighted criteria like associated costs, individual need for services and efficiency.

Providers from those regions will compete with one another to determine which regions will receive voice and broadband internet service. Wigfield stressed that while there are more areas in need of access than available funds, a second auction will follow in 2019. The FCC determined in 2013 that about 23 million Americans did not have the infrastructure necessary to support high-speed broadband internet. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has been dedicated to moving the project forward, following a successful year of collecting data accurate down to a census or "city-block" level, Wigfield said.

High-speed connections being made in Ralls County

Lynn Hodges, CEO/Manager with Ralls County Electric Cooperative, said that Ralls Technologies has been focused on bringing high-speed internet access to customers for more than 15 years. He said wireless and satellite solutions are sometimes the most viable option due to terrain limitations. Ralls Technologies offers high-speed internet, high-definition TV and digital phone services throughout Northeast Missouri, and Hodges said they are focused on leveling the playing field for high-speed internet access in rural regions with metropolitan areas.

"There are providers [in urban areas], there's competition for providers, but there's a lack of both providers and competition in rural America," he said.

Hodges was recently elected to the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC) Board of Directors during its annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn., pointing out the group works to lower energy costs, develop infrastructure for rural customers across the nation and work on new technologies for internet, power and TV customers. He said his experience in bringing a fiber-optic system to rural customers that's designed for the next 40 or 50 years influenced his decision to run for the NRTC board seat.

"We have been a nationwide leader in pushing fiber out," he said. "We actually are in our ninth year of providing fiber optic services. ... My focus is trying to help them with what I know about fiber deployment in rural settings."

Although some regions and terrain make fiber optic installations cost-prohibitive, NRTC provides satellite and wireless services. Hodges said he recognized the importance of ensuring high-speed internet access for ranchers and farmers in the area — for present-day commerce and for passing down the tradition of agriculture to future generations.

"They're trying to market their goods to more of a world economy instead of a local economy, so that broadband access means a lot to them regarding their business, but it's also about quality of life," he said. "Their ability to access the world of the internet goes a long way toward helping retain those folks and keep them in a rural setting."

©2018 Hannibal Courier-Post, Mo. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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