Farmers and ranchers must have access to fixed and mobile broadband to be more efficient, economical and environmentally responsible, the American Farm Bureau Federation said in recent comments on the Rural Utility Service’s e-Connectivity Pilot Program.
At the heart of Farm Bureau’s comments is the need for accurate and third-party verified data to successfully target the pilot program’s limited funding to boost access to broadband service in rural areas. Farmers and ranchers need broadband to use the latest precision agricultural equipment, follow commodity markets, communicate with their customers, gain access to new markets around the world and, increasingly, for regulatory compliance.
In addition, rural communities’ much-needed access to health care, government services and educational and business opportunities in most cases can only be gained by using broadband services and sophisticated technologies that require high-speed connections, Farm Bureau noted in the comments.
“Broadband is no longer a luxury for a household or business, it’s a necessity,” the group said.
Without reliable, third-party verified maps to accurately determine where wireless broadband is accessible, Farm Bureau cautioned against RUS’ plan to base program eligibility on at least 90 percent of households without sufficient broadband access.
“Additionally, using households as the sole metric overlooks the need for wireless broadband connectivity to cropland and ranchland, which is critical for modern agriculture,” Farm Bureau continued.
Because farmers’ and ranchers’ “offices” are in the field or on ranchland, Farm Bureau suggested that the pilot program include wireless broadband for cropland and ranchland within the eligibility requirement.
“Precision agricultural equipment requires a wireless broadband connection for data collection and analysis performed on both the farm and in remote data centers. As more precision equipment becomes available, farmers and ranchers cannot take full advantage of that equipment if they do not have access to wireless broadband in the field or on the ranch.”
Farm Bureau also suggested that rural areas would be better served if the agency brings its minimum definition of broadband speed in line with the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of 25 Mbps (upstream)/ 3 Mbps (upstream). Among other things, this would allow for uniformity across federal agencies.
“Federal programs, such as the e-Connectivity Pilot Program, must offer farmers, ranchers and rural communities the same access to broadband speed as is available to suburban and urban communities, for these programs to successfully reduce the digital divide,” Farm Bureau said.
As for the maps the agency plans to use, Farm Bureau recommended the pilot program go beyond the National Broadband Map because it doesn’t accurately reflect the served, underserved and unserved areas across the country. Instead, the organization suggested, RUS should use an approach that increases the map’s granularity and accuracy and uses a verification process that includes consumers.
The e-Connectivity Pilot Program was established in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 and appropriated $600 million to expand rural broadband in underserved rural and tribal areas.