Making a More Exciting Case for Rural Broadband


AUGUST, 2017



The Farm Bill and RUS (Rural Utility Services) can improve a lot more than agriculture across America, but with the growth and value of precision farming – innovation in agriculture, including improving yields and profits, can be supported by investment in high-speed broadband networks.

Despite change and uncertainty in the US political environment, access to the Internet, and to high-speed broadband in particular in rural America, continues to attract support for a lot of naturally good reasons.

Access to the Internet can dramatically improve education, job opportunities, delivery of public services, connected health care, and so much more. Of course, having a replacement for fixed line phone service is important, and providing access to news, sports, entertainment and community broadcasting is important to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

For decades, the Farm Bill has been the channel for funding broadband initiatives, in concert with the Rural Utility Service (RUS) laws, as more and more rural areas become suburban, and as factories shutting down in rural areas create high unemployment. Electric co-ops are leaders in development, and expert lobbyists on Capitol Hill.

“The Farm Bill contains important rural development tools that support our efforts to strengthen our communities,” Dennis Chastain, president and CEO of the Georgia Electric Membership Corp. told a House panel earlier this year, and continued in a statement that “As Congress contemplates telecommunication and infrastructure policies in the Farm Bill and in other legislative packages, we believe that all potential providers, including electric cooperatives, should be eligible for programs designed to bridge the digital divide.”

The Department of Agriculture offers financial assistance to unserved or underserved communities through its RUS broadband loan program. The last Farm Bill included a Rural Gigabit Network Pilot Program to offer the highest internet speed available, for example.

One of the more interesting twists on the Farm Bill and RUS are new Internet of Things applications tailor made for the agriculture industry, including the rapid growth of sensor-based water, soil, wind, and weather management tools which are connected via wireless networks – which are supported by high-speed broadband infrastructure.

Ten years ago, “Connected Crops” as one company (Esprida) refers to the Internet of Farm Things, would have not been possible. Advances in the quality of sensors, with the lowering cost of the equipment, in combination with application development including collecting data that enables more efficient use of water locally, while also sharing data in the cloud with forecasters on a more national, distributed basis, has made solid business models possible.

“Successful entrepreneurs, farmers or otherwise, are taking advantage of newer IoT solutions to increase profits” said Asad Jobanputra, Director of IoT Solutions, Esprida. “The key innovation here was hardware that is simple for farmers to install and maintain, and a mobile app that hides the complexity behind big data, analytics, etc. Its an app that simply shows what is going on in a field and what to do next.”

Thanks to the readings of weather sensors, farmers now have far more accurate information and can make better informed decisions and faster than ever before. For example, ConnectedCrops sends alerts when temperature in a farmer’s field has dropped, for example in the fruiting zone for wineries, giving them heads-up that they should start their fans to circulate warm air.

While “precision farming” is still early, it is on the way to becoming standard practice as the IoT also grows.

“Precision crop management is still in the experimental phase,” says Susan Moran, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and member of the NASA Landsat 7 Science Team, based in Tucson, Arizona. “But there is a significant number of farmers who use high technology and remote sensing data for precision crop management.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, NASA, and NOAA are among key agencies contributing to this revolution in large-scale agriculture. The goal is to improve farmers’ profits and harvest yields while reducing the negative impacts of farming on the environment that come from over-application of chemicals.

According to Moran, the term “precision farming” refers to the use of an information and technology-based system for within-field management of crops. “It basically means adding the right amount of treatment at the right time and the right location within a field—that’s the precision part,” Moran explains. “Farmers want to know the right amounts of water, chemicals, pesticides, and herbicides they should use as well as precisely where and when to apply them.”

Perhaps we can get NASA to speak with the Farm Bill office and RUS team (this could be easier than getting politicians to speak across the aisle!) The opportunity? Continue to invest in building rural broadband out and get even MORE returns than originally thought – enabling, for example, farmers in those rural areas to farm smarter.

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