Broadband is arguably one of the most limiting factors in rural America. Throughout the country, there are still communities with no access to the internet. Fortunately, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr says the agency recognizes rural America’s disadvantage due to lack of broadband and is working to alleviate the pinch point as fast as possible.
“It's a real challenge,” Carr told AgriTalk host Chip Flory on Tuesday. “If you look at New York or San Francisco, these are communities that almost no matter what we do at the federal level, they're going to get next generation broadband, they're going to get next generation connectivity. But we have work to do to make sure that every single community, including rural America, gets their fair shot.”
Despite best efforts, there is still not a very clear picture on where internet dead zones exist throughout the country and that’s something the FCC is working on.
“Right now, we're in the process of reestablishing what's known as a national broadband map where we have all the broadband providers put their information into this one centralized location,” Carr explained. “Then we can look at it and see, you know, drill down to a, you know, city level or look up at a national level as to where we are with deployment.”
Montana farmer Michelle Jones doesn’t take access to high speed internet for granted because just like large swaths of Montana, it wasn’t always available on her farm.
“We got broadband internet last fall,” she told Flory during Wednesday’s AgriTalk farmer forum. “I believe our local cooperative, Triangle Telephone, got a federal grant and were able to put in broadband for most of their customers.”
According to Commissioner Carr, grants like that received by Jones’ cooperative are one way the FCC is working with “mom and pop” providers to expand access further into rural areas.
“We have this $10 billion a year [fund] called the universal service program that we administer at the FCC,” Carr explained. “Right now, we're reorienting that fund and we're opening it up again to support deployments in these areas where the private sector case is just not there. Those areas where it costs $30,000 to deploy a mile of fiber, you can get a substantial percentage of that supported through that $10 billion fund.”
Nebraska farmer Randy Urmacher also recently gained fiber access in his rural community.
“Up until about a year and a half ago our internet was terrible,” he said. “I found out that they had fiber going by the highway and our driveway’s close to a quarter mile long. The three houses right where we are all signed up for it and they ended up bringing us each fiber line to our house so now we have great internet.”
While fiber plays a huge role in rural connectivity, in some communities the FCC is helping providers use a multitude of new technologies, according to Carr. There are new generations of satellite technologies that the FCC hopes will be better and faster than prior generations which Carr said will help some. There’s also new 5G and fixed wireless technologies that the FCC hopes will help expand access.
“There's a lot of small mom and pop providers that are literally putting antennas on the top of water towers,” he said.
That’s the case for Illinois farmer Chad Leman, who says the internet access on his farm is great.
“We're pretty fortunate we're only 30 miles from Peoria and 30 miles from Bloomington,” he told Flory. “So you got a couple fairly good sized cities close to us.”
Not only does Leman have fiber going down their rural road, but an internet company broadcasts a signal from one of his grain legs and there’s a cell phone tower on his farm.
In order to help grow access to 5G, which Carr calls the “next generation of connectivity,” the FCC is working to roll back some regulations. When most people think of cell phone towers they think of the kind X has on his farm. But according to Carr, 5G won’t require a tower which led the FCC to take another look at regulatory reform.
“For 5G, almost all of those new deployments are going to be backpack size, small cells,” he explained. “Well, our regulatory approach at the federal level assumes that every new antenna is a 200-foot tower. In March we excluded small cells from that federal review process entirely, which alone is expected to cut 30% out of the total cost of deployment.”
It’s a combination of new technology, increased access to funding and cutting red tape that Carr believes will be the key to solving this blister. And it’s not one he’s going to let fester on his watch.
“We see farms and communities that are still on the other side of the digital divide and we're working right now to just get more broadband out there,” he said adding that not only does broadband have the potential to improve a farm’s efficiency but it’s capable of keeping the next generation on the farm.