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This map shows where broadband access is limited. The pale green-yellow color indicates where there are zero providers, so large chunks of Montana and northwestern and central South Dakota have gaps in service. (broadbandmap.fcc.gov)

Trump, Congress, FCC and USDA working to connect rural America

Living in the digital age has many advantages, but for underserved areas of rural America where connectivity is slow and rural broadband services are lacking, utilizing modern technologies is more difficult and places a handicap on many agricultural entrepreneurs living in remote locations.

In early 2018, President Donald Trump spoke at the American Farm Bureau Federation's annual convention where he pledged to bring greater broadband access to rural communities. In turn, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began working on tackling this issue by modernizing infrastructures through loan and grant programs that could improve and advance economic development in rural communities.

"Broadband connectivity is probably at the top of our list because I hear about it in nearly every community that I visit," Anne Hazlett, assistant to the secretary of rural development at the USDA, said in a speech given at USDA's Agriculture Outlook Forum in Washington, D.C. "We often hear a description of broadband really being the electricity of the modern age, so as we tackle that in this context, we see it as foundational to so many issues in rural communities, whether we are talking about health care or access to advanced learning opportunities, markets for our rural businesses to be producing. Rural America connectivity is such a key piece of each of those dynamics."

It's not just about faster internet speeds and fewer dropped calls; it's about connecting every corner of America in the digital age. Gaps in capabilities are common in rural America. As of 2015, 25 megabytes per second download/3 megabytes per second upload was considered the minimum speed to address service gaps in rural areas that have unfavorable coverage statistics. But the FCC reports that there are 17 counties in Montana where less than 20 percent of the population has access to services at 25 Mbps/3 Mbps. In South Dakota, less than 20 percent of four counties have access to service at those minimum coverage standards, and only 2.5 percent of the population of North Dakota's Golden Valley County have such access. In Wyoming, 5.4 percent of Nibrara County has such access, while no one in Sublette County, population 9,773, has the minimum speed coverage.

In January, Rep. Robert Latta, R-Ohio, introduced the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act of 2018 (H.R. 4881) to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. It recently moved to the Senate, and if passed, the legislation would create a task force at the Federal Communications Commission that would work to identify breaks in connectivity and would partner with the USDA to bring high-speed service to 95 percent of agriculture lands by the year 2025.

Brendan Carr, a commissioner at the FCC, has been traveling the nation listening to rural Americans as they describe the challenges of having poor connectivity and how it impacts their local communities and businesses.

"We are seeing gaps in low population density areas across the country," said Carr. "For some farmers, they have access to fast connectivity where they can connect to the cloud and crunch data; for others, because of a slow connection, they aren't able to crunch the data online or it takes hours to upload the information."

Carr marveled at the many amazing advances in agriculture technology today; however, he says without high-speed broadband access, it makes it difficult to utilize these advancements and limits how efficient and economically prosperous these rural communities can really be.

"Closing the gap in rural communities will require two things," said Carr. "First, regulatory reform; there is a lot of red tape that makes it harder for broadband providers to deploy to these communities. At the FCC, we have taken a very close look at the red tape and ways we can help companies provide access. Second, we will need funding. The FCC has a $10 billion per year fund, and we are in the process of reorienting that funding to provide greater access."

It can be very costly to get service to some areas. That keeps many areas with only one or two service providers, which limits affordability and choice for consumers. The FCC is working on technology to bring 5G access to more areas, plus has funding for grants to help service providers reach rural areas where it might have previously been cost prohibitive to be.

While it may take a large investment to help providers feasibly deploy broadband access to rural communities where populations are small and there are miles and miles between homes, Carr said the ability to connect to high-speed service will bring these communities from the edge of profitability to now become profitable because they are able to increase productivity of their businesses and reach customers outside of their rural communities.

"We have smart, brilliant people in rural America, and before, if you wanted to pursue and opportunity, you would need to move to an urban area," said Carr. "Now, we can have people living in these rural communities who, with high-speed broadband access, can bring their ideas to the marketplace without leaving home. The future is really bright."