Broadband is arguably one of the most limiting factors in the Heartland. Just ask Montana farmer Michelle Jones. She grows corn, soybeans and wheat, and raises cattle on 10,000 acres with her dad and husband. In their corner of the world, access to high-speed internet is relatively new and comes with a price.
“We’ve tried several options and just in the last year have found something that works well for us,” she says. “The only kicker is we pay around $300 per month for access.”
Throughout the country, there are still communities without access to the internet. For example, Jones’ neighbor a few miles down the road has no access and zero options for future access. Fortunately, FCC Commissioner Brendan Car 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 says. “If you look at New York or San Francisco, they are communities that no matter what we do at the federal level, they’ll get next generation broadband and connectivity. But we have work to do to make sure every single community, including rural America, gets their fair shot.”
Dead Zones. Today, no clear picture shows where internet dead zones exist in the country, and that’s something the FCC is working on.
“Right now, we’re in the process of re-establishing what’s known as a national broadband map where we have all the broadband providers put their information into this one centralized location,” Carr explains. “Then we can look at it and drill down to a city level or look up at a national level as to where we are with deployment.”
Jones doesn’t take access to high-speed internet for granted because, just like large swaths of Montana, it was just recently made available on her farm.
“We got broadband internet last fall,” she says. “Our local cooperative, Triangle Telephone, got a federal grant and put in broadband for most of their customers.”
According to Carr, grants like the one 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,” Carr says. “Right now, 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 recently gained fiber access in his rural community.
“Up until about a year and a half ago our internet was terrible,” he says. He found out fiber was being installed along the nearby highway, so he and three neighbors signed up to get a fiber line into their houses.
Fiber is just one avenue for rural connectivity, Carr says. There are new generations of satellite technologies the FCC hopes will be better and faster than prior generations. There’s also new 5G and fixed wireless technologies that should 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 says.
That’s the case for Illinois farmer Chad Leman. He lives 30 miles from from two good-sized cities: Peoria and Bloomington. Not only does Leman have fiber going down his rural road, but an internet company broadcasts a signal from one of his grain legs. There’s also a cellphone tower on his farm.
Emerging Technologies. 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 today, they think of the large and looming kind Leman has on his farm. But Carr says 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 says. “Well, our regulatory approach at the federal level, assumes that every new antenna is a 200' 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,” Carr says.
Not only does rural broadband have the potential to improve a farm’s efficiency, Carr says, but it’s also capable of helping keep the next generation on the farm.
Listen to the full “AgriTalk” interviews with FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr and Montana farmer Michelle Jones at bit.ly/BrendanCarr