Innovation

Broadband in Rural America: The Key to Improving Innovation, Sustainability for U.S. Soy Farmers and Their Customers

Technology has vastly improved the way U.S. soybean farmers work. Improving efficiency, accuracy, and technology has allowed for more precision and better quality all while helping to make U.S. soybean farms more sustainable than ever. These benefits have been passed on to U.S. soybean buyers throughout the world through innovation and sustainability which have created a better U.S. soy product. But there’s room to improve, and much of that improvement depends on rural accessibility to consistent, reliable broadband service.

The agricultural industry has invested heavily in providing farmers with more and more equipment, products and services that work in tandem to help improve operations, produce a better crop and increase the bottom line. However, much of this technology relies on the ability to connect. In the middle of a field, where there is often limited service, a piece of equipment or device that relies on internet connection no longer lives up to its potential.

Research supports the critical need to increase broadband accessibility and quality throughout rural America. Addressing the current lack of, and inconsistency of, access to broadband in rural America has the potential to improve the way rural communities live and work. The following provides an overview of the current state of broadband access in rural America, what’s being done to improve access and what the future holds as inroads to access are made.

Limited Connectivity

According to the “2019 Broadband Deployment Report” from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), of the 21.3 million Americans living in households that do not have access to a fixed terrestrial (nonmobile or satellite) broadband provider, nearly 26 percent live in rural areas.1

For these populations, the impact is felt not just in the way they live, but also in the way they work.

“Broadband is no longer a luxury,” says RJ Karney, director of congressional relations and broadband specialist with the American Farm Bureau. “It’s a necessity.”

That statement couldn’t ring more true for U.S. soybean farmers. Internet connectivity is a lifeline for their business, their families and their communities.

Third-generation soybean farmer-leader Philip Good attests to the importance broadband plays on his 3,000-acre farm in Macon, Mississippi.

“Broadband access is critical,” says Good. “It affects everything from our irrigation systems, moisture sensors, combines, feeding and in the office, access to market information, emails and instructional videos. It impacts every aspect of our business.”

Currently, Good relies on satellite internet service due to the lack of availability of broadband in his community.

“But it’s unreliable,” Good says of his satellite connection. “It’s dependent on the weather. If the weather is bad, we don’t have service.”

Good says his current satellite service provides download speeds of 10 Mbps (megabits per second). Compare this to the official FCC broadband definition benchmark of 25 Mbps download speeds.For even more perspective, consider that Ookla, the company behind the internet testing and analysis site SpeedTest, indicates the average U.S. internet download speed is currently 115.67 Mbps.2

Significant Impact

Karney says it’s important to consider the ways broadband can enhance both work and lifestyle when it’s readily available, and of course, how lack of availability also impacts those in rural communities.

“We look at broadband access from two perspectives,” says Karney. “One is the quality of life tract such as educational, healthcare and leisure needs as well as public safety and entrepreneurship. The second is more directly tied to precision agriculture and technology being used in cropland, ranchland and dairies.”

Karney says improving internet has the potential to expand educational opportunities and healthcare and can ultimately be a motivator in encouraging younger generations to return to their hometowns and family farms.

“A lot of farm kids will go to college and be exposed to high-speed internet,” he says. “Then when they look to starting their own business or at going back to the farm, if they return home, they lose that connection they’ve gotten used to.”

He also notes rural America’s aging population. “There’s a decrease in physicians in rural America,” Karney says. “Specialists are almost non-existent. Broadband allows for telemedicine. It can take two hours one way for some to reach a specialist. Broadband allows someone to go to a local clinic in town and visit a specialist through telemedicine.”

From the perspective of work and food production, Karney says the benefits consistent, reliable internet can give farmers are considerable.

“Farmers and ranchers want to be as profitable as possible,” he says. “They want to reduce their environmental impact and be more efficient with their resources. In order to maximize their yields and minimize their environmental footprint, a lot are using telesensing. It allows them to be very prescriptive on how deep to plant a seed, the amount of water and fertilizer to use. This approach requires connectivity to get real-time data.”

However, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Farm Computer Usage and Ownership, 2017,” 29 percent of U.S. farms have no internet access at all.3

“A lot of cropland and ranchland has less coverage than urban areas or even homes in rural areas,” says Karney. “We don’t ask any other business to run without connectivity, but that’s what farmers do.”

In a recent report, “A Case for Rural Broadband,” published by the American Broadband Initiative, it is noted that the lack of broadband access is felt heavily in the middle of fields where farmers work.

“As a result, producers face inconsistent ability to tap into and master new technologies, compromising the higher productivity and greater profitability needed to sustain and grow United States agriculture, meet the dietary needs of a growing global population, and maintain national competitiveness in international markets,” the report reads.4

Jon Conradi, outreach director for Connect Americans Now (CAN), says broadband has changed the way the agriculture industry operates, but farmers and ranchers are among those hit the hardest by the digital divide.

“New and innovative precision agriculture tools allow farmers and ranchers to stay competitive in the modern, global economy by allowing them to save time and conserve resources while simultaneously increasing yields,” Conradi says. “But without access to broadband, many farmers and ranchers are unable to capitalize on these advancements or access the basic tools required to compete in a 21stcentury marketplace.”

Good knows the challenges all too well. He says there’s no doubt the lack of rural broadband in his area impedes his business.

In addition to soybeans and other crops, Good also raises catfish. “We need to monitor our catfish throughout the night. We have to monitor our fields 24 hours a day to make decisions on irrigation. When our internet service goes down, we go down. We can be down for periods of time through the day, every day. The satellite service is just totally unreliable. Its sporadic at best.”

Clearly, the need for improved access to rural broadband is great.

Conradi says the FCC’s estimates of Americans who lack access to broadband are likely underestimated. “Unfortunately, due to flaws with the FCC’s current data collection methods, it is likely that its reports drastically overstate broadband availability in rural America,” he says. “According to a recent study from Microsoft, more than 162 million rural Americans do not access the internet at broadband speeds. While access and usage are different data points, the gap between Microsoft’s data and the FCC’s is too drastic to justify, and CAN believes reforms are urgently needed to the FCC’s broadband mapping system.”

Karney agrees. “Coverage maps gloss over farmland as empty space with no need for service. But there is a great need to have coverage where a farmer’s business takes place – which is out there in the middle of that field.”

Alongside CAN, entities like American Farm Bureau, are focused on ensuring accurate mapping can be obtained, providing a true sense on where broadband coverage is and isn’t located.

“That’s important because we’ve seen estimates that if we want to get fiber connection to all residents who don’t have coverage, it would be between $45 and $60 billion to connect everyone to fiber lines,” says Karney. “The federal government isn’t going to cover that. So, we need to be very targeted with where the funding is going. The current mapping system is broken. It allows providers to use census blocks to mark where they provide service, but that’s not accurate. Even if they only service a small subset of a block, they get credit for the entire census block.”

Making Strides

Karney says a bill was recently introduced into the U.S. Senate that would change the way internet service providers report coverage areas, aimed to provide more accurate data.

“A more transparent coverage map will be more beneficial to rural America and reduce the digital divide,” he says. “A lot of organizations in the telecommunications space, broadband and agriculture have rallied behind this bill.”

Both Karney and Conradi say working in favor of rural America is that broadband access is currently a hot topic in private and public sectors.

“Over the last several years, momentum has been building to tackle the digital divide as policymakers, and advocates and companies have come together to recognize the urgent need to bring broadband connectivity to all Americans,” says Conradi. “Policymakers in Washington and in several states have dedicated new or expanded funding to efforts to close the rural broadband gap.”

In addition, he says companies like Microsoft are making considerable investments in “innovation, digital skill learning and hard network deployments to bring connectivity to rural America.”

“Microsoft, through its Rural Airband Initiative, has made particularly strong progress in bringing connectivity to underserved and unserved communities across the United States,” says Conradi.

The Airband Initiative employs a mixed-technology model supported by CAN for broadband deployment in rural areas. It has already brought service to more than one million Americans who previously lacked access or were underserved.

“CAN believes a mixed-technology model that capitalizes on all available technologies provides the greatest promise to completely eliminating the digital divide,” he says. “That model must include innovative technologies like TV White Spaces, which has attributes uniquely adapted to meeting the challenges of deployment in rural communities.”

According to Conradi, the FCC has made significant strides in the right direction toward clearing regulatory barriers to TV White Spaces technology deployment – but more must be done to unleash the full potential of this technology as a means to help close the digital divide.

“CAN aims to close the digital divide over the next five years by advocating for an all-of-the-above approach that includes new and innovative solutions like TV White Spaces technology,” he says. “We also work to raise the profile of and call for action to fix issues with the FCC’s broadband mapping data – so public and private investment can be better directed to where the need is greatest.

A Connected America

In the American Broadband Initiative’s report, “A Case for Rural Broadband,” the authors describe how reliable broadband access can create a new environment for farmers, giving them ways to use the abundance of data they are capable of obtaining in methods that will allow them to “learn faster and more rapidly adapt to market shifts – particularly on new fields and with new animals – and creating more nuanced insights, enabling them to act on leading indicators.”

The report cites the following benefits broadband access can enable on farms and ranches:

  • allow utilization of decision-making tools to help farmers and ranchers estimate the potential profit and economic risks associated with growing one particular crop over another
  • determine which fertilizer is best for current soil conditions
  • apply pesticides in targeted areas of the field, to control pests rather than applying pesticides over the entire field
  • use limited water resources more effectively
  • respond to findings of sensors that monitor animal health and nutrition4

In an environment where America’s farmers and ranchers have reliable access to broadband, Conradi sees a more promising competitive landscape with benefits for farmers, their domestic and international customers and consumers alike.

“Broadband provides many advantages to farmers, such as allowing them to reach more consumer markets, ensuring the quality of their product and keeping up with the changes in agricultural technology,” he says. “Through broadband, farmers use various precision agriculture techniques to ensure they maximize profits and yields and remain competitive in all markets.”

Conradi adds: “Tackling the digital divide can boost American agriculture, help farmers compete domestically and internationally, lower costs, conserve resources and increase yields. A successful, robust and more efficient American agriculture industry can benefit American communities, taxpayers and consumers – with less usage of key resources, greater revenue generated by American agricultural exports and more.”

In “A Case for Rural Broadband,” the American Broadband Initiative writes: “If Internet infrastructure, digital technologies at scale, and on-farm capabilities become available at a level that met estimated producer demand, the U.S. agriculture industry would realize benefits equivalent to nearly 18 percent of total production, based on 2017 levels.”

Yet, ask soybean farmers like Good, and they’ll say broadband access will prove to be priceless.

“Internet access is absolutely everything for those of us in rural areas,” Good says. “It’s our connection to the world. It’s our efficiency. It’s what allows us to be sustainable. You cannot even begin to put a dollar value on what access to broadband would mean to not just myself or other soybean farmers, but to entire communities. Generations of people.”

Conclusion: What Comes Next

Already, a number of agricultural entities have joined efforts to help identify the impact of limited broadband access and with those seeking to develop solutions to the issue. (Note: The United Soybean Board conducted a broadband survey of its members in early 2019. Publication of the results is currently slated for fall 2019.)

Conradi encourages efforts remain ongoing.

“Organizations whose members are involved in or rely on the success of American farmers have an incredibly compelling story to tell policymakers about the need for immediate action to ensure U.S.-based agriculture remains competitive in the global economy,” he says.

Karney says it’s time for those living in rural communities – particularly farmers and ranchers – to talk about the topic of broadband access.

“If you don’t have reliable broadband access, talk to your congressmen,” says Karney. “Farmers need to talk about the impact the lack of broadband access has on them as a resident of rural America and as farmers.”

“Bottom line: If we want vibrant and prosperous rural communities, we need to make it more feasible for people to live in these communities.”

Knowing the efforts being made to improve rural broadband access gives Good and his fellow soybean farmers reason to be optimistic.

“I’ve heard my dad say that for his generation, improvements to rural electricity changed rural America forever. It changed his life. Rural broadband could be the biggest change in my lifetime for rural America. It would make a world of difference in how we live and work.”

Lisa Humphreys
Lisa Humphreys

Editorial Director

U.S. Soybean Export Council

Lisa Humphreys is the Editorial Director for USSOY.org and Communications Manager for the U.S. Soybean Export Council.