The Internet Crisis in Rural America

Farmers, like all small businesses in 2017, need to be online. Whether they're using the Internet to access commodity research and price information, view weather forecasts, use GPS for precision planting, store data, research the solution to a repair need, or connect with other farmers on social media- farming has gone digital. The stakes are high, and getting left behind now threatens a lot more than a farmer’s social life. But in too many rural parts of the country, basic broadband is simply not available. 

39% of rural Americans, or 23 million people, lack broadband access, in contrast to only 4% of urban Americans. And despite internet access being confirmed as a public utility, broadband instillation is often delayed in rural areas, primarily due to cost. Not only is the physical infrastructure incredibly expensive (the Internet, as it happens, is a physical thing), but with the added problem of a relatively low number of users per square mile compared to urban areas, providers face long wait times to recoup the cost of installation.

But the problem is being worked on. The FCC, tasked with bringing broadband to rural America, has created a program called the Connect America Fund to help offset costs for providers in rural markets. The fund requires companies that accept FCC financial support to provide a minimum of 10 Mbps download speeds and 1 Mbps upload speeds and offer rates comparable to those found in urban areas. One critical issue, however, is that this minimum required speed is less than the 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speed required to meet the current definition of broadband. Lower standards for broadband in rural communities are, without doubt, not improving this situation. And even with this program, the FCC has struggled to find companies willing to accept funding in some eligible areas.

Private companies are also exploring options. In 2011, Kansas City was selected as the first of nine cities to receive Google Fiber, which offered an incredibly fast 1,000 Mbps for upload and download speed. Google Fiber has also recently acquired Webpass, a wireless broadband service which beams Wi-Fi to multi-unit buildings. The downside? Given the slow rollout and resistance from pre-existing providers, it could be years before rural residents can take advantage of the service. Similarly, Facebook has spent the last couple of years developing a drone prototype, known as Aquila, which they hope to be able to launch across the globe, providing beamed wireless broadband for the entire planet. But the concept still suffers from regulatory restrictions and the need for significant continued development before it can become a viable option.

There is another solution. Practically speaking, a farmer’s most immediate route to rural broadband might be forming a collective with other interested residents in their area. The cost to lay fiber for broadband can vary widely depending on remoteness, the size of the provider, and other factors, from perhaps $2,500 to $150,000 or more. If there are only a handful of households being added to monthly service, providers are resistant to such an output.

However, if rural communities can come together and pools funds to help pay the cost of installation, providers are often more receptive. In areas served by a small provider, beginning this conversation may be as simple as walking into the local office or calling the help line, but in places served by a large national provider, the state-level lobbyist for the company can often help put interested parties in touch with the right person.

For farmers, connectivity becomes more important by the day. The internet provides an unprecedented amount of information and connectivity, and it also allows farmers and their families to save a tremendous amount of time. But even the most optimized websites today require fast internet connections. And, as information is increasingly delivered via video, access to broadband is becoming even more crucial. Getting fast broadband to farmers and rural communities will continue to be a critical part of making American ag more advanced and more competitive. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's alone and not those of Farmer's Business Network, Inc., its affiliates or members.