Farmers Call for Better Broadband in Rural California

By Kevin Hecteman at the California Farm Bureau Federation

Having trouble reading this on your laptop or smartphone? You might be among the more than one-quarter of rural Americans with insufficient broadband service.

From equipment diagnostics to data transfers to irrigation control to simple text messaging, tech is becoming a way of life on the farm—but is only as good as the local internet connection.

“America’s farmers and ranchers embrace technology that allows their farming businesses to be more efficient, economical and environmentally responsible,” the American Farm Bureau Federation states in a policy paper on the topic, citing precision applications of water, fertilizer and crop-protection materials among the benefits of tech on the farm.

“These are only a few examples of how farmers use broadband connectivity to achieve optimal yield, lower environmental impact and maximize profits,” AFBF stated.

Or, as Siskiyou County farmer Brandon Fawaz put it: “Having faster internet now is no longer a luxury. It’s kind of just required in the normal transaction or running of the business.”

The trick, of course, is getting that service out to people who need it. Even California—home of Silicon Valley and its technical cornucopia—has issues with connectivity in rural regions, and Fawaz said it goes beyond broadband.

“We’re still hindered by the lack of good cell coverage,” said Fawaz, who grows hay and operates a fertilizer and crop-protection business. “I still rely a lot more on printing paper and taking that to someone driving a fertilizer spreader versus being able to send them certain types of data files straight from wherever I’m at to wherever they’re at. You’ve got a piece of equipment sitting there, and you know what needs to be given to the guy, but you’re having to take him a piece of paper or a USB stick for him to plug into the computer on the machine.”

That extends to soil sensors Fawaz relies on to take moisture levels and send the data to phones and computers, accessing how-to videos and other troubleshooting information on equipment manufacturers’ websites and irrigating crops from remote locations.

“Our pivots—our irrigation systems—are controlled on service that’s basically just text-message-level service,” he said. “I’ve had to drive a 36-mile round trip to go down and push a button, because the pivot wouldn’t receive the stop or start command.”

The issue, one of AFBF’s top priorities, is receiving attention at the federal level. On Capitol Hill, a House subcommittee held a hearing last week at which Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst drove home the need for broadband access.

“While most Americans take broadband for granted, 26.4% of rural Americans lack access to broadband,” Hurst told the hearing. “This is alarming, particularly when compared to the only 1.7% of urban Americans who lack such access.”

Broadband connectivity allows equipment such as cloud-connected planters, irrigators, tractors and harvesters to automatically change application rates for seed, fertilizer and more, Hurst testified.

Connectivity also is key to running the most basic of services in rural areas, said Chester Robertson, chief administrative officer of Modoc County.

“It’s a public-safety issue,” Robertson said. “It’s an impediment to government and education. And it also impacts our private-sector businesses.”
Wildfires, car crashes into telephone poles and even squirrels gnawing on lines have all interrupted service and made it difficult, if not impossible, for residents and travelers to conduct business and for first responders to do their jobs, he added.

“The average citizen doesn’t realize the implications to them when we don’t have broadband,” Robertson said. “And it’s getting harder and harder for us in government to procure services when you’re not connected to the cloud.”

He’s seen the effects on farmers and ranchers in his county as well, and noted capacity is getting to be an issue.

“As more and more of the ag community and a lot of the kids and other people go to using their cellphone, they’re using the same broadband backbone that government and the rest of us are using,” Robertson said.

“There’s a nexus between cellphone usage, which more and more the ag community is dependent on, and having a strong backbone of broadband,” he added. “As time progresses, this becomes less of an equality issue and more of an issue of public safety, and compromises ability for businesses and public entities to provide core mandated services.”

A U.S. Department of Agriculture report, A Case for Rural Broadband, found that fully deployed rural broadband would lead to nearly $65 billion in economic benefits annually. The report, produced as part of the American Broadband Initiative, cites benefits to row crops, specialty crops and livestock management and states USDA’s intention to work with other federal agencies to remove barriers to broadband deployment and ag tech innovation (See Comment).

The 2018 Farm Bill included the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act, creating a task force to focus on connectivity and technology needs of precision agriculture. The Broadband Data Improvement Act, introduced by Sen. Shelley Capito, R-W.V., seeks to improve the accuracy of broadband coverage maps and better direct federal funds for broadband installation where needed.

In the state Legislature, Assembly Bill 488 by Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, would add the secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture to the California Broadband Council, to give agriculture a voice in finding ways to expand broadband. The bill is up for consideration on the state Senate floor.

“At this day and age, how do we not have better cell coverage?” Fawaz asked. “If you were to ask people here what’s most frustrating on this topic, it hands down would be cell coverage.”

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Presented with Permission

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FCC Calling All Farmers

 

— FCC chief Ajit Pai said Monday he’s looking for a few good farmers (and ranchers, and broadband providers) for the new, 15-member Precision Ag Connectivity Task Force. The advisory group will focus on improving connectivity for agricultural producers, and will work with both the FCC and U.S. Department of Agriculture. The group’s mission includes identifying gaps in broadband availability on farmland, and coming up with policy recommendations with a goal of expanding reliable broadband to 95 percent of agricultural land by 2025. Nominations for membership are due July 17.

Sources: POLITICO Morning Tech

Beyond Fast Internet The True Value of Broadband

The value and importance of broadband is quite high and rising. It impacts the everyday life of consumers by enabling life-changing experiences in education and professional development, healthcare and wellness, lifestyle, and entertainment, among others. Simply put, broadband significantly improves the quality of life for the average consumer.

But it’s important to recognize that broadband’s impact also extends to
the larger community. Broadband has become an essential utility, on par with, or potentially even exceeding the importance of electricity and water. We’re in the early stages of realizing the impact and potential broadband has on the overall community. There are applications to come that we can’t even comprehend today. To remain relevant and thrive in the future, robust broadband networks are now required for any community, regardless of size and location.

Full Report is at the Industry Tab.

RCRC Commentary: Empower Local Communities to Close the Digital Divide

Greg Norton President and CEO of Rural County Representatives of California.

The deployment of broadband infrastructure supporting speed-of-commerce connectivity is among the most critical missing components needed to drive economic development in California’s rural communities. Broadband access is essential to connecting rural communities to the 21st century economy. Yet the barriers to deploying infrastructure continue to inhibit access in some of California’s most disadvantaged communities in both rural and urban areas.

The Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC) represents 36 of California’s 58 counties, covering approximately 56 percent of the state’s land mass. It is estimated that merely 47 percent of California’s rural households within this population area have access to high-speed broadband.

I recently had the opportunity to speak about this crisis on a panel before the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) titled “The Imperative of Digital Inclusion.” In their 2016-17 Annual Report, CETF identified internet access as a “21st Century Civil Right,” and the internet is now firmly established as an operational epicenter for business, government, education, information, and basic services.

Access to broadband provides multiple economic and social benefits to rural residents by allowing access to vital government services and resources. Broadband contributes to job creation, economic growth and business investment improves access to critical healthcare services, and expands access to educational resources and opportunities. Broadband access for farmers and ranchers would allow for improved stewardship of our natural resources through the use of technology to monitor and measure water and soil conditions and usage.

Local governments have joined forces in advocating for the acceleration of broadband deployment in California’s rural communities, and have outlined a number of key provisions. First, the technology deployed must be an appropriate fit for the area — high-speed fiber connections are imperative. Second, we must look to rural electrification as a model, and fund local municipalities to develop the infrastructure, and provide the services. Lastly, local governments should be empowered to step up as lead partners with the federal government to formulate and execute upon strategies that achieve broad-based access to high-speed services.

When high-speed connectivity is unavailable, too slow, or too expensive, it has a significant impact on the economic success and quality of life in these communities. As a result of the digital divide, rural communities are suffering, and struggle to tap basic resources including educational opportunities, medical care, economic and trade opportunities, and vital government services, including public safety.

We’re aware of the challenges involved in deploying adequate capacity across the broadband infrastructure in California’s rural communities. Rugged terrain, remote locations, and sparse populations are all factors that lead to increased deployment and maintenance costs. However, these challenges must be addressed in order to provide this fundamental socio-economic tool and resource to the residents within these communities. While technological advances such as 5G are beneficial to the overall industry, this type of innovation only serves to create a greater chasm between the haves and the have-nots. Priority should be focused on an equitable deployment of appropriate level services throughout the state, not on the next big thing for the fortunate few.

Community-driven broadband partnerships offer a solution. We can quickly resolve this problem by including local communities in the process of choosing the appropriate means to deliver the requisite broadband to ensure quality of life, business growth, and household capital formation. In partnership with the federal government, communities can choose the approach to delivering broadband best suited to their specific needs. Options could include innovative public-private partnerships, other government financing, or through the enforced requirement of leveraging infrastructure investments made with federal dollars by incumbent providers. The Federal Communications Commission has deployed and earmarked enormous amounts of capital to closing the urban-rural divide that exists with access to broadband. Despite these massive influxes of capital, too many rural communities remain without access.

It is imperative that ubiquitous middle-mile fiber optic cable technology is provided at the speed of commerce to allow small to medium-sized businesses to compete in the digital global marketplace, and attract economic development opportunities to California’s rural communities. Although we have made advancements in expanding broadband, there is more to do to ensure that universal access to broadband services is realized for all rural residents. Now is the time — we must allow local communities to develop high-speed solutions that fit their rural communities’ broadband infrastructure needs. Broadband is fundamentally necessary to a community’s economic health, quality of life, and opportunity at prosperity.

The source is HERE.

Comment:

The Federal funding to improve rural access to broadband is the Connect America II Fund, which is a 10-year program.  The telco 5G build-out is expected to take at least a decade. If the LEO satellite programs from SpaceX, Amazon, OneWeb, LeoSat, and Telesat are successful, space-based broadband will become available in 2021 which is only two years away. By 2024 there will be multiple broadband satellite companies competing for rural communities business. These companies are planning to provide 4G and 5G backhaul services at a lower cost than fiber, which has to deal with “rugged terrain, remote locations, and sparse populations.”  One of the obstacles to satellite broadband is the current CPUC and CETF policies which discriminate against satellite services. These are policies that were put in place due to the low speeds, long latency and high cost of geo-satellite broadband services.  LEO satellites latency is on par with cable networks and shared fiber services, and current speeds are equal to cable internet and on long distances exceed fiber speeds.  These policies need to be revisited and adjusted to match future broadband services. More in this issue in future posts.

USDA Launches New Program to Create High-Speed Internet e-Connectivity in Rural America

WASHINGTON, Dec. 13, 2018 – Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue today announced that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is offering up to $600 million in loans and grants to help build broadband infrastructure in rural America. Telecommunications companies, rural electric cooperatives and utilities, internet service providers and municipalities may apply for funding through USDA’s new ReConnect Program to connect rural areas that currently have insufficient broadband service. Answering the Administration’s call to action for rural prosperity, Congress appropriated funds in the fiscal year 2018 budget for this broadband pilot program. USDA Rural Development is the primary agency delivering the program, with assistance from other federal partners.

“High-speed internet e-Connectivity is a necessity, not an amenity, vital for quality of life and economic opportunity, so we hope that today rural communities kick off their rural broadband project planning,” Secretary Perdue said. “Under the leadership of President Trump, USDA has worked to understand the true needs of rural communities facing this challenge so we can be strong partners to create high-speed, reliable broadband e-Connectivity.”

USDA will make available approximately $200 million for grants (applications due to USDA by April 29), as well as $200 million for loan and grant combinations (applications due May 29), and $200 million for low-interest loans (applications due by June 28).

Projects funded through this initiative must serve communities with fewer than 20,000 people with no broadband service or where service is slower than 10 megabits per second (mbps) download and 1 mbps upload.

Approved projects must create access speeds of at least 25 mbps upload and 3 mbps download. Priority will be awarded for projects that propose to deliver higher-capacity connections to rural homes, businesses and farms. USDA seeks to stretch these funds as far as possible by leveraging existing networks and systems without overbuilding existing services greater than 10/1 mbps.

Evaluation criteria include connecting agricultural production and marketing, e-Commerce, health care and education facilities. Previous research by USDA has demonstrated that high-capacity broadband is critical to all aspects of rural prosperity, including the ability to grow and attract businesses, retain and develop talent, and maintain rural quality of life.

To help customers with the application process, USDA is holding a series of online webinars and regional in-person workshops. The full list of upcoming public webinars and workshops can be found at the ReConnect Program’s resource portal at reconnect.usda.gov.

In April 2017, President Donald J. Trump established the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity to identify legislative, regulatory and policy changes that could promote agriculture and prosperity in rural communities. In January 2018, Secretary Perdue presented the Task Force’s findings to President Trump. These findings included 31 recommendations to align the federal government with state, local and tribal governments to take advantage of opportunities that exist in rural America. Increasing investments in rural infrastructure is a key recommendation of the task force.

To view the report in its entirety, please view the Report to the President of the United States from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity (PDF, 5.4 MB). In addition, to view the categories of the recommendations, please view the Rural Prosperity infographic (PDF, 190 KB).

USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; housing; community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural areas. For more information, visit http://www.rd.usda.gov.

Source 

USDA Launches Rural Broadband Portal

(TNS) — The U.S. Department of Agriculture has launched a website to inform the public on ongoing rural broadband opportunities and future opportunities and to allow for feedback.

According to a release, $700 million is available every year for rural broadband connectivity projects with an additional $600 million a year in funds to soon become available.

“Rural high-speed broadband e-Connectivity is as important for economic development as rail, roads, bridges and airports – and as vital as the buildouts of rural telephone networks were decades ago,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a release. “USDA is committed to being a strong partner with rural leaders in deploying this essential infrastructure.”

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 80 percent of those in the United States without access to broadband reside in rural areas or on tribal lands.

USDA Broadband Portal

Article Source

 

 

Field Level Broadband Mapping Proposal

I have been working on the problem of broadband mapping accuracy since the summer of 2013 when the Gold County Broadband Consortia collected broadband survey forms at the Nevada County Fair. Plotting the information gathered at the Fair revealed some significant gaps in the California Broadband Maps. 

The GCBC worked with the California Public Utilities Commission staff to came up with a standard form which could handed out at community meetings to collect field level information on actual broadband coverage in the GCBC areas of responsibility, Sierra, Nevada, Placer, El Dorado Counties and eastern part of Alpine County The form was eventually put online, producing a spreadsheet that with a little clean up could be forwarded directly to the CPUC for inclusion on broadband maps.  Sample online map is HERE.

The problem of collecting field level data which show the real broadband coverage is a significant challenge for state and federal agencies responsible for producing accurate broadband maps. Maps which are essential for policy making and the equitable distribution of broadband subsidies.  I have been thinking about the problems for some time and propose the following solution.

In 1867, Oliver H. Kelley, an employee in the Department of Agriculture, founded the Grange. The Grange’s purpose was to provide farmers with an organization that could assist them with any difficulties that arose. One of the latest difficulties is the lack of broadband in rural communities. 

Rural Granges places them in the right location to participate in a grassroots field level broadband data collection program. Broadband access is becoming a component of modern agriculture, and the national Grange organization has highlighted the need for agricultural access to this critical infrastructure.  Granges have a vested interest in making sure broadband maps accurately reflect the real coverage.

According to the  National Grange Organization:

“. . .America’s most pressing broadband problem: our national need to expand high-speed Internet access across rural and underserved areas.”

State agencies responsible for broadband maps should consider developing a grassroots field level data collection program in conjunction with the State and County Granges in those counties with poor broadband coverage. The Granges collect the data in the field and state agencies consolidate the data in spreadsheets, create shape-files for submission to FCC/NTIA for publication of field level broadband data. 

With granges all across America, this program could be replicated in all states with large gaps in broadband coverage. This real-world data will help solve the national broadband mapping accuracy problem. 

This is a sketch of an idea, with lots of work and coordination ahead to create a fully functional program. Your thoughts?