21st Century Agriculture Technology & Funding Rural Broadband Infrastructure

Introduction

Broadband-enabled enterprises include health care, education, job training, public safety, and technology. Broadband is the key to adoption of 21st Century Agriculture Technology (“Ag Tech”). Due to the accelerating development of Ag Tech, it is the new rural driver for broadband utilization. Large telecommunications companies naturally invest in profitable urban infrastructure, however, and are not interested in cabling sparsely populated rural areas. Although 96% of California’s population is urban, 95% of the state’s geography is rural. We cannot leave out 95% of the state from broadband coverage.

Rural Broadband Infrastructure

In the Ag Tech context, broadband refers to any high-speed internet access that is always on and faster than traditional dial-up access. Broadband mapping describes geographically how internet access service from telephone and cable TV companies is available in terms of speed and price. Broadband maps are used to find “unserved” areas and “underserved” areas. The former areas contain no broadband infrastructure while the latter areas have access to broadband but not at fast speeds. Generally, rural internet users have fewer options and slower service. We need federal assistance to bring high-speed internet service to these rural areas.

Just as 19th century railroads and 20th century interstate highways played leading roles in American prosperity, high-speed internet is the factor that determines which rural communities, and which farms, will enjoy economic growth and prosperity in the 21st century. And just as it took public investment to bring transportation infrastructure to rural regions of the U.S., it will take public resource investment to bring high-speed internet to rural communities and farms. Funding rural broadband infrastructure is the single most promising public resource investment the federal government can make to provide unserved and underserved regions of the country with economic prosperity, opportunity, and technological innovation.

Agriculture Technology

Ag Tech represents the future of farming. It is broadband-enabled technology that increases the efficiency of farms.  Ag Tech generally consists of marketplaces, farm management software, precision agriculture, sensors, smart irrigation, and drones and robotics.

  • Marketplaces are e-commerce platforms that connect farmers directly to vendors and consumers.
  • Farm management software allows farmers to efficiently manage their resources, such as crop production and farm animals.
  • Precision agriculture focuses on predictive analytics to address allocation issues and make better decisions regarding energy, water, and pesticide efficiency.
  • Sensors are smart devices that collect data and help farmers evaluate crop health, weather, and soil quality.
  • Smart irrigation provides systems that help monitor and automate water usage for farms.
  • Drone companies can also cater to agricultural needs, while robotics can provide intelligent farm machines that perform various farm functions.

Today, Ag Tech most commonly consists of the sensors that monitor, analyze, and respond to changing farm conditions. Other major areas of applied Ag Tech include maximizing yields, maximizing water efficiency, increasing energy efficiency, sustaining the environment, and ensuring food safety. The two latter applications are driven by state and federal regulations wherein Ag Tech offers a means of meeting the various statutory requirements. In fact, many of the sensors and other Ag Tech instruments have multiple benefits. For example, water irrigation technology saves money, water, power, and meets state groundwater regulations.  Sensors monitoring chemical inputs also optimize farm efficiency while minimizing the farmer’s footprint on the environment.

The adoption and application of this type of Ag Tech rests on the availability of the internet. In order to access the internet, Ag Tech requires rural broadband infrastructure. Broadband enables smart devices to compile, analyze, and transmit data to farmers that increases productivity, quality, and sustainability. In addition, Ag Tech is scalable to smaller farms and even facilitates alternative farming methods to permit farming in locations and settings that cannot support traditional farming. Reaping all of these benefits requires a massive rural infrastructure that can only be obtained through federal assistance and funding to ensure that broadband is not only accessible, but useful to farmers and conducive to technological innovation within rural communities.

Realizing Funding

One way to implement rural broadband infrastructure is through FirstNet. FirstNet is the largest amount of federal funding available for broadband infrastructure. Its purpose is to create a national system of emergency communications between all first responders. We propose that Congress ensure that FirstNet emergency communications are provided to rural regions of California and not limited to making urban population centers a priority like most broadband infrastructure initiatives.

Clearly, this would only assist Ag Tech if there is also a multiple use requirement for any FirstNet investment. In other words, a FirstNet broadband system needs to not only be available for rural regional use, but FirstNet resources would also have to be bundled with other broadband resources (regardless of source) to create a multi-benefit system. The implementation of rural broadband infrastructure under this model operates under the assumption that there are simply not enough public resources to build redundant single-use broadband systems.

Alternatively, or contemporaneously, the federal government may implement a program that assists and encourages state and local governments to invest in rural broadband infrastructure. Congress can realize such a program by offering states like California a match of federal resources. This way, from both federal and state perspectives, the public resources that are invested will be leveraged. Notably, any leveraged public resources under this program would need to be invested in the form of grants in order to actually benefit the unserved and underserved areas of California. Successful funding models include the Internet For All Now Act and the New York state broadband infrastructure.

The reason current federal programs offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) do not work is because they provide loans and not grants. These loans typically take two years to acquire after initiating the application process. Instead of bringing 21st century Ag Tech to the farm fields, the current programs offer assistance only to those communities that can wait two years before confirming that a broadband-enabled investment opportunity is available and have the means to pay back any federal funds that are ultimately received. This is stifling the economic growth and prosperity otherwise available to rural communities. Thus, the facilitation of Ag Tech innovation through federal programs is in need of comprehensive reform.

Realizing Innovation and Prosperity

To facilitate innovation, any comprehensive reform should also consider adopting a program for funding proof-of-concept projects. Ag Tech is a hot bed of innovation and improvement where internet access acts as an entry point to the 21st century economy. From optimizing agriculture, to protecting the environment, and ultimately ensuring our own health and safety, we need to be investing in our future by funding proof-of-concept projects to support the creation of new Ag Tech and improvements to broadband infrastructure. The benefits of such funding extend to rural medicine, distance learning, transportation, public safety, direct market access, and even rural tourism and recreational activities.

We should also encourage federal funding and regular surveys of broadband signal available on farm fields to create a metric for the constraints imposed on Ag Tech by broadband service technology. While some Ag Tech does not require high bandwidth, this is due to Ag Tech attempting to adapt to the lack of high-speed internet in rural areas. It does NOT mean that Ag Tech does not need high-speed internet to be available on the farm fields. We need to have high bandwidth availability for farm fields and rural communities in order to fully realize the benefits of having rural broadband infrastructure.

Conclusion

AgTech continues to grow at an accelerating rate towards a $240 billion industry by 2050. It will enable farm production to meet the future doubling of global food demand. If we have rural broadband, the same internet platform used for farming in the fields can be used to increase the overall prosperity and quality of life in the U.S. and particularly in our nation’s rural communities.