Just like every other U.S. business competing in an increasingly global economy, America’s farmers and ranchers need reliable, high-speed internet service. It is no longer a luxury; it is an absolute necessity in our digital age. Robust broadband networks foster more efficient, economical and environmentally responsible agriculture operations.
Rural broadband deployment is now a priority for Congress, the administration and federal agencies. But there is still work to do to ensure rural and agricultural communities have fair and open access to the fixed and mobile broadband networks they need to prosper and succeed.
High-speed broadband networks are vital to ensure farmers and ranchers can use the latest in precision agricultural equipment. They are central to following commodity markets and communicating with customers, vendors and suppliers. Speedy internet connections mean American farmers can gain a foothold in new markets around the world while ensuring they are complying with ever-changing regulatory standards.
The nature and science and technology of farming is constantly changing. Modern farming techniques such as precision agriculture give farmers important information to maximize yields on every piece of the land they work right down to the square foot, in many cases. But precision ag requires a wireless broadband connection for data collection and analysis done on the farm and in remote data centers, too. Farmers and ranchers cannot take full advantage of such cutting-edge equipment if they do not have access to wireless broadband in the field or on the ranch. As time goes by, those connections will become ever more important in a world expected to add more than 2 billion people by 2050.
Rural communities – already under extreme economic pressure – need broadband now and will need it even more in the very near future. Broadband is essential to help rural communities access health care and government services, as well as educational and business opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable. Put simply, our rural and farming communities must be able to access high-speed internet just as easily and efficiently as suburban and urban communities. Bridging this digital divide is critical to the success of America’s farmers.
Rural broadband is to this century what rural electrification was to the last: a critical part of economic survival. Chances for economic recovery in rural America will fade unless we have broadband service throughout the nation.
Washington has begun responding to our needs. The House and Senate versions of the farm bill, for instance, include the AFBF-supported “Precision Agriculture Connectivity” provision that creates a task force to focus on the broadband connectivity and technology needs of precision agriculture. This group would bring together the Agriculture Department, the Federal Communications Commission and public and private stakeholders to address the needs of precision agriculture. It would ensure farmers and ranchers have the technology they need to maintain our food security and manage resources efficiently. They need this provision to be included in the final conference report.
Congress also appropriated $600 million to the USDA to implement an e-Connectivity Pilot Program to expand rural broadband in underserved rural and tribal areas. This program helps get infrastructure improvements into rural America in a targeted way.
The president, meanwhile, signed an executive order that expedites the approval process for companies that want to deploy broadband infrastructure in rural areas near or on federal lands.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is a Kansas native who understands the needs of rural Americans. He set the tone for his agency early on. One of the first votes he scheduled as chairman, just one month into his tenure, was to approve a $4.5 billion plan to make 4G LTE mobile broadband available in parts of rural America without wireless service.
Rural communities’ broadband concerns have been pushed to the back burner for years. It is clear our needs are once again a priority with the administration, Congress and federal agencies. We must continue to build on this progress, so farmers, ranchers and rural communities have the connectivity they need to run modern agricultural businesses and foster a higher quality of life in rural communities across America.
Zippy Duvall is president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.