Revolutionizing Agriculture Requires Rethinking Rural ConnectivityLuke Hogg / Nov 14, 2023
Luke Hogg is the director of outreach at the Foundation for American Innovation, where his work focuses on the intersection of emerging technologies and public policy.
For decades, the federal government has invested in closing the digital divide between those who have access to broadband internet and those who do not, with mixed results. Since Congress has invested tens of billions more taxpayer dollars to connect America once and for all as part of the Biden administration’s infrastructure package, it is crucial that rural, agricultural areas are given the flexibility needed to build the most economically viable broadband networks possible. In some areas, this may mean experimenting with less proven technologies.
When many of us think of agriculture, our minds immediately go to the pastoral images yeoman farmers pulling a plow across a section of land, producing just enough for a family’s subsistence. What few of us imagine is automated combines harvesting fields monitored by drones with crop performance analyzed using the latest artificial intelligence systems. For Americans born and raised in urban environments, it might come as a shock to learn that modern agriculture is closer to the automated corn farm depicted in the beginning of Interstellar than it is to Little House on the Prairie.
The internet of things (IoT) has come to agriculture, through precision agriculture technologies, or AgTech. Smart irrigation systems, live crop monitoring from drones and satellites, soil quality sensors, and task-oriented robots are just some of the high-tech tools being used on farms across the country. These new tech-enabled techniques have spurred consistent growth in agricultural output while reducing the amount of land and labor required to achieve those outputs. But as more and more of these systems are relying on internet connectivity, broadband has become one of the biggest limiting factors on agriculture.
Since at least 1936, when Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act, policymakers have understood that connecting rural Americans requires altering economics. The traditional way Washington has done this—whether for electricity, telephones, or broadband—has been to change the economic incentive structure through low-interest loans, voucher programs, and direct subsidies. In the case of rural electrification, such programs proved enormously successful, connecting more than 96 percent of rural America in just 25 years.
When it comes to internet access, federal investment has been an important driver of increased connectivity, but gaps still remain. According to the most recent national accounting, at least 17 percent of rural Americans lack access to broadband, as opposed to about 1 percent of urban Americans. The reasons for this disparity are relatively straightforward: it costs more money to connect fewer people in rural areas. For most corporations, the investment needed to connect many agricultural areas is simply not worth the potential return.
Two years ago, Congress made a major commitment to close the digital divide once and for all by providing every American the opportunity to connect to the internet. Congress approved $65 billion for broadband deployment and affordability, approximately $42.5 billion of which was directed under the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program (BEAD) program as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. In order to “future proof” American broadband infrastructure, the BEAD program understandably places priority on terrestrial broadband solutions that are capable of delivering higher speeds and lower latency where feasible.
For many rural areas, focusing federal efforts on terrestrial broadband solutions makes perfect sense. If the federal government is going to invest tens of billions of dollars, it should strive to get the largest return on investment possible by connecting the most people with the best quality services as reasonably practicable.
In the vast agricultural stretches of rural America, from the rugged Appalachians to the sprawling Great Plains, terrain and distance can defy the economics of terrestrial systems. As the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Precision Ag Connectivity Task Force noted in its interim report last year, “in some cases it may not be possible because of geography to deploy fiber, or it may be extremely costly.” In these areas, governments should be open to experimenting with other systems to achieve ubiquitous coverage. Two technologies worth considering are fixed wireless and satellite broadband.
Fixed wireless services provide high-speed internet access using radio signals rather than cables to establish a direct link between the user and the service provider's facility. These systems typically require the deployment of a series radio transmitters and receivers on relay towers to connect users. While fixed wireless services can be effective in mountainous terrain, fixed wireless services are generally preferable is generally preferable in flatter areas where there are fewer obstructions between the transmitter and receiver.
Satellite broadband services are not totally dissimilar from fixed wireless services but, as the name suggests, these systems rely on constellations of satellites in low Earth orbit to establish high-speed connections. Satellite internet is generally less affected by terrain than fixed wireless because it relies on signals transmitted from orbiting satellites, rather than on ground-based relay towers. This makes it a more suitable option for mountainous regions, where the line of sight needed for fixed wireless connections might be obstructed by the terrain.
As part of the BEAD program, US states, territories, and tribal areas must submit a funding plan for how they will use the federal grants. Some states are already committing to a flexible, tech-neutral approach that is more likely to achieve the goal of ubiquitous connectivity. Brandy Reitter, executive director of Colorado’s broadband office, told reporters earlier this year that fixed wireless services are “absolutely part of the equation” for his state. Given the challenges of installing more traditional services across the numerous mountain peaks and box canyons of the Mountain West, Colorado is a prime area to experiment with different solutions for closing the digital divide.
It is less clear how many states, if any, are seriously considering satellite internet as a potential alternative to terrestrial broadband solutions that are cost prohibitive. Part of the hesitancy to include satellite in BEAD funding plans might be related to a previous clash between Elon Musk's firm, Starlink, and the FCC over eligibility for other federal funds targeted at connecting rural America. As a recent report from the Government Accountability Office put it: “Improvements in low earth orbiting satellite broadband indicate increasing potential to serve rural and remote areas, but current concerns about service limitations and affordability for users may hamper satellite service’s full potential to serve such areas.”
In general, the reluctance to accept satellite internet as part of efforts to close the rural digital divide comes down to concerns about quality of service. Starlink’s dispute with the FCC, for example, centered around whether it could provide sufficient internet speeds to qualify for federal funding. While non-terrestrial systems cannot currently provide the speeds of terrestrial services, in many places, gaining access to any service would provide enormous benefits, especially in precision agriculture.
While some organizations have claimed that farms need symmetric broadband speeds of 100 Mbps for both upload and download—speeds that aren’t even available in many dense urban areas—most precision agriculture technologies and techniques do not require nearly as high of quality service as one might think. Crop monitoring and management systems, smart irrigation systems, and analytical tools all use only a few Mbps. More intense technologies like drone imaging systems or automated farm machines use significantly more bandwidth, but farmers can and do get by with the minimum acceptable speeds required by the FCC.
To bridge the digital divide, we must be adaptable, innovative, and willing to embrace new technologies. Of course everyone should have the best quality services possible, and better broadband quality is likely to enable better and faster adoption of precision agriculture. But for areas that are currently unserved and are unlikely to be served by traditional systems, governments cannot afford to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Allowing such areas to use grant funding to access satellite or fixed wireless services might be the best return on investment in both the short and long term.