“We need things that work in agriculture—we need technology that works,” says farm-owner and Pennsylvania native, Andy Bater, in a recent CoffeeTalk on the challenges rural connectivity presents.
Both Bater and Missouri Department of Agriculture Director, Chris Chinn, sit on the Precision Ag Connectivity Task Force, a 2018 Farm Bill funded initiative that is working to identify coverage gaps and looks to provide internet connectivity to 95% of the nation’s unserved farmland by 2025.
“A lot of our rural areas in Missouri do not have access to high speed internet—around 1.2 million,” Director Chinn says, “We have some terrain in the state, especially in Southern Missouri, where both fiber and wireless are not ideal. Satellite is the only option.”
Chinn says that rural communities seem to have been forgotten and left behind in the conversation of high speed internet, but that the state of Missouri has been working since 2017 to change that.
“Our state has been focused on how we are going to connect that “last mile”,” she says. “We want to make sure that our Missouri farmers have the technology capabilities they need to be competitive on a global basis. Our main objective is to get 95% coverage in the state by 2025.”
Bater isn’t as optimistic for Pennsylvania, given the terrain challenges the state faces.
“What we see in Pennsylvania is a lot of small farms and a lot of trees. So when you get to the edge of a field, a the tree line, or on the other-side of a hill, you lose connectivity, you lose cell service. Precision ag here is difficult, and if it (technology) doesn’t work for a farmer one time, it’s hard to get them to buy in again,” Bater says of the state’s connectivity challenges.
Both Bater and Chinn, along with the other members of the task force and its designated working groups, are charged with providing guidance to the FCC, and helping to formulate the go-forward plan for connecting rural areas throughout the country. A process both members share is still in its initial phases.
“Right now we are still studying the issue—identifying who the experts are in these areas and learning where the holes are,” Bater says.
The final plan, if successful, will connect more than 800 million rural acres across the US with some form of internet connectivity.
“I think there is going to be an above all approach,” says Director Chinn, “Some areas will have the gold standard, but in some areas it’s going to be a long time before that happens. At this point, anything is better than nothing, and we need to make sure that everyone is connected in some capacity.”
Chinn shares that one way Missouri is working to bring connectivity to those underserved areas is through the offering of a USDA funded broadband grant that offers communications providers the opportunity to apply for up to 5 million dollars in funding. The initiative, she says, has rapidly gained traction in light of the COVID-19 remote officing and education challenges, noting that citizens expressing their need for connectivity is a strong driver in those provider conversations.
“Many people think that they can’t get high speed internet so they give up; we have to make sure that people continue to ask, and that they know that they have more options than internet providers—their connectivity may be from a rural electric provider,” she says.
“We also have to make sure that companies know that there is demand in an area and they will have return on the infrastructure investment they make.”
Pennsylvania’s support looks much the same, and Bater shares that, much like Missouri, many of the state’s municipalities are taking a seat at the table to learn how they can best serve their customers’ needs.
In the latest round of monetary support, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Pai, has proposed a 9 billion dollar 5G fund to support next generation wireless services, with 1 billion specifically allocated to the advancement of precision agriculture.
But with 800 million acres of agricultural lands to provide service to, at roughly $35,000 per square mile, the question begs: “Will 1 billion dollars be enough to scratch the surface of the Task Force’s goal by 2025?”
“I don’t know that it will be enough, but it’s a good start,” says Director Chinn. “You have to remember, this is the first time agriculture has had a seat at the table in these discussions, and that’s exciting. It’s a big task, but we have to try to get that last mile connected. This is the foundation that we need to buildout for the future.”
Bater echoes, sharing that there are challenges, first and foremost, in getting a good handle on what the group is trying to achieve and what the best course of action will be going forward.
“Agriculture looks different based on where a farm is located and what they grow. If you are growing an organic (specialty) crop, the rows need to be perfectly straight at planting, at cultivation, for spot spraying and spot weeding—that all takes an immense amount of data,” he says.
“Where we can go with agriculture is unbelievably exciting, but we have to be looking at the future—not what will happen a year from now, but a decade from now— we have to make a long term investment.”
For more information on the special working groups, the progress of Task Force efforts, and to learn more about past and future meetings visit the Precision Ag Connectivity Task Force. To watch the webinar featuring the Missouri Department of Agriculture Director, Chris Chinn and Pennsylvania Farmer representative, Andy Bater, click here.
*All thoughts and opinions expressed in both the CoffeeTalk webinar and this blog recap are those of the Director Chinn and Andy Bater and are not representative of the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Task Force or the FCC.