Rural broadband is essential to modern agriculture, the farmers who grow our food, and the quality of life for rural Americans. Expanding broadband services to rural areas has been a chief concern of Farm Bureau. High-speed internet access allows individuals to reach health care and educational services, government agencies, and new business opportunities. COVID-19, and the resulting social distancing guidelines, has only heightened the need for reliable and wide-ranging broadband access
Nationwide, according to the FCC, 39 percent of rural Americans lack access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service, compared to only four percent of urban Americans. Additionally, 29 percent of U.S. farms have no access to the internet according to USDA. In Pennsylvania, roughly 18 percent of rural Pennsylvanians lack access to internet service, or only have low-speed options. Comparatively, only two percent of urban populations have similar connectivity issues. Research performed by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania found that median broadband speeds across most areas of the state do not meet the FCC’s criteria to qualify as broadband. In fact, research showed that there were no counties in Pennsylvania where at least 50 percent of the populace received broadband connectivity, however, FCC’s official broadband maps show 100 percent broadband availability across the state.
One of the largest hurdles to full deployment and adoption of highspeed broadband services is the ability to accurately determine where broadband services currently are (and are not). One of the primary issues with the data provided to the FCC is the way in which the survey question is presented. Service providers are asked if they “can” or “do” provide services to at least one location in a census block. And, since “can” and “do” have substantially different meanings, survey responses likely inflate the percentage of Americans with access to broadband services. In fact, data analysis from the Pew Research Center and Microsoft’s broadband usage data indicate that the true rate of fixed broadband deployment is closer to 50 to 65 percent of the U.S. population, instead of the 92 percent figure estimated by the FCC.
Furthermore, in rural areas, census blocks are likely too large to target broadband investments. For example, there are 3,200 census blocks larger than the District of Columbia, and five larger than the state of Connecticut. The challenge with census blocks is if one household in a given census block is reported as being served, the entire block is also considered served. As a result, the entire block is ineligible to receive federal funds for broadband buildout initiatives, underscoring the need for more granular data than the current census block system.
Farmers depend on broadband just as they do highways, railways and waterways to ship food, fuel and fiber across the country and around the world. Many of the latest yield maximizing farming techniques require broadband connections for data collection and analysis performed both on the farm and in remote data centers.
America’s farmers embrace technology that allows their farming businesses to be more efficient, economical and environmentally responsible. Today’s farmers are using precision agricultural techniques to make decisions that impact the amount of fertilizer they need to purchase and apply to their fields, the amount of water needed to sustain crops, and the amount and type of herbicides or pesticides needed. These are only a few examples of how farmers use broadband connectivity to achieve optimal yield, lower environmental impact and maximize profits.
Farmers rely on broadband access to manage and operate successful businesses, the same as small businesses do in urban and suburban America. Access to broadband is essential for farmers to follow commodity markets, communicate with their customers, gain access to new markets around the world and, increasingly, to ensure regulatory compliance. According to USDA’s “A Case for Rural Broadband”, if access to broadband and adoption of digital agricultural technologies matched producer demand, U.S. agriculture would realize benefits amounting to nearly 18 percent of total U.S. market production, or $64.5 billion annually, based upon 2017 levels.
Quality of Life
Rural communities need access to health care, government services, and educational and business opportunities. For many rural communities, access can only be gained by using broadband services and sophisticated technologies that require high-speed connections. Current and future generations of rural Americans will be left behind their fellow citizens if they are without affordable high-speed broadband service that enables them to tap into health care and education services, government agencies and new business opportunities.
For More Information
- Center for Rural Pennsylvania’s study, “Rural Broadband Availability and Access in Rural Pennsylvania”
- AFBF Market Intel, “Broadband Access, the Difference Between Can and Do”
- AFBF Market Intel, “Unleashing Broadband on Rural America Leads to Nearly $65 Billion in Economic Benefits Annually”
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, allocated $325 million for broadband infrastructure and telehealth initiatives to combat the current epidemic. Funds were split between USDA Rural Development (distance learning and telemedicine), the ReConnect Program, and the Federal Communications Commission (emergency telecom services for health care providers).
Farm Bureau is supporting H.R. 6723, the Universal Broadband Act, which would modernize the contribution rates of the Federal Communication Commissions’ Universal Service Fund. The current model draws contributions solely from telephone services, while this bill would expand contributions to include broadband services.
Farm Bureau supports using the Universal Service Fund (USF) to provide affordable communication services for rural areas and to ensure rural telecommunication technology is equitable to the infrastructure in urban and suburban areas. Using USF funding to improve rural access to modern, affordable broadband services is critical for the economic sustainability of rural Americans.
Specifically, Farm Bureau asks for support for:
• Legislation and efforts which would focus on 1) improving rural access to modern, affordable broadband services, 2) utilizing a combination of tax incentives, grants and/or regulation to increase the use of broadband access in rural areas, and 3) appropriation of significant funding for rural broadband deployment to erase the digital divide.
• H.R. 6723, the Universal Broadband Act