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Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission on Sept. 16 chats with Midco high-capacity fiber installers Cody LaCroix, and Erik Jenson, bringing fiber across Interstate Highway 29 to the Grand Farm project east of the highway at Exit 54, near Horace, N.D. (Mikkel Pates / Agweek)

FCC chairman visits ND to witness 'marrying of agriculture and technology'

HORACE, N.D. — The Grand Farm project south of Fargo, N.D., had a grand couple of weeks, topped off by an appearance by Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission on Sept. 16.

The week before, the site striving to become an autonomous farming research and design hub, played host to an agricultural drone demonstration, with demonstrators from as far away as Kansas State Polytechnic in Salina, Kan., in a national study involving the University of North Dakota and several institutions. The event included science students and demonstrators from North Dakota State University.

Pai, who grew up in Kansas and has served on the FCC commission since 2012, said he was pleased to be in North Dakota, where he'd toured in Bismarck and Fargo.

Brian Carroll, manager of the Grand Farm, noted that Pai's appearance is another way to "connect people, build our ecosystem." Carroll hailed the recent announcement of a code school project that will help train workers in high-tech space.

Flanked by a newly-installed metal construction-type facility, will be the beginnings of a "makerspace" for an autonomous farm project that promoters want to become an epicenter of the fusing of intelligent mobile equipment with the farm ecosystem.

Ajit Pai, seated left, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, attends an event at the Grand Farm."One of the exciting aspects of connectivity across the country is precision agriculture, the marrying of agriculture and technology," said an approving Pai. Precision agriculture will be able to help solve labor shortages that are cropping up across the country.

Pai said policy makers need to have a conversation about what the higher uses for people are if autonomous equipment is used to replace tractor, grain cart and truck drivers.

The FCC is about to set up a task force on precision agriculture, a part of which will focus on that question. He noted low-earth orbiting satellites will be able to beam internet access at a speed and price point for earth-based providers. He said the FCC will auction 5G spectrum space next year, more spectrum will have been freed up than is currently held by every broadband provider in the U.S.

Barry Batcheller, of Appareo Systems LLC, in Fargo, and an agricultural manufacturing entrepreneur legend of the region, told those gathered at the event that automation to bring "intelligent workers, based in silicon instead of in carbon atoms is going to be an important change in society." He said that as farm families have fewer children, farms will become larger.

Concepts for "intelligent mobile equipment" that is started here will help prove techniques that may be used on the moon or beyond, he said. "It starts pretty far-fetched now," he said. "Ten years from now, it won't be so far-fetched." North Dakota is ahead of the curve among rural states, for internet and fiber access to smaller communities. "I think a lot of folks in North Dakota are getting on the right side of the digital divide," he said, with the FCC subsidizing up to 1 gigibit of upload speed with high-capacity fiber, and no less than 25 megabits per second, which is the agency's definition for broadband.

Pai said the FCC has a $10 billion Universal Service fund that since February 2017 has been used more and more to provide capital investments for unserved parts of the country, instead of spending on parts of the country that already had service.

Before leaving, he inspected a Midco installation project that was being dug toward the east across I-29 to bring a high-speed connection to the site.

"You've got a big fiber pipe out here with 100% private capital to connect to four world-class data centers, ready to go for Grand Farm on Day 1," said Justin Forde, senior director of governmental relations for Midco, a regional cable service provider. He said Midco also is in the fixed wireless business, providing high-speed connections to "every single acre in the Red River Valley."

Jane Schuh, assistant dean for academic programs at North Dakota State University, talked about the development as a new era of cooperation and opportunity for NDSU research and training, along with companies like Microsoft and John Deere.