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Smart Agriculture Needs Better Broadband in Rural Areas, Say NTIA Panelists

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WASHINGTON, June 26, 2018 – The lack of broadband coverage in rural areas is impeding the agriculture sector from making greater use of “precision farming,” according to experts speaking at a Commerce Department webinar on Wednesday.

Speaking at a National Telecommunications and Information Administration webinar on “Smart Agriculture: Increasing Productivity Through Technology” hosted by BroadbandUSA,  experts from John Deere and Purdue University blamed the lack of broadband coverage on curtailing the potential of such technologies.

When trying to get the cellular service to work with the machines in rural locations, “Coverage is a problem,” said Mark Lewellen, manager of spectrum advocacy for John Deere.

“Precision planting–and spraying and harvesting – relies on high precision GPS,” Lewellen said. The high precision GPS system can provide a yield map of the field, he said, which can identify areas with the best yield and provide a color-coded map to communicate with other farming devices.

“It knows to max out placement in areas of green. It pulls back on that placement in areas of yellow, and even more so in areas of red,” he said. When connectivity is available, farmers can save up to 10 percent in costs. The systems can’t work when the farmers can’t remotely access their data.

Real-time data usage relies on high-speed internet connections

Aaron Ault, senior research engineering at Purdue University, spoke about the need for automated data to flow without manual intervention by a farmer.

“There isn’t anyone that doesn’t want” automation, said Ault, who works at a unit of the university dubbed the Open Ag Tech & Systems group. “That’s the key to what data needs to do to provide real value to people.”

But this isn’t possible without good-quality broadband, he said. “It has to be automated in real-time. You can’t get real-time data if you don’t have decent broadband connection.”

How smart agriculture works (when there is better broadband)

In general, “smart Agriculture” refers to the development and deployment of technology to improve farming techniques, resulting in techniques such as precision agriculture (including site-specific management), which uses sensing, data collection, modeling and other technology to map subfields within a farming field.

Knowing the specific conditions of areas within a field allows farmers to manage resources more efficiently, resulting in less waste of fertilizer, water, seeds, and other costly expenses.

According to the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, despite that the agricultural community largely acknowledges that smart agriculture technology is the future of farming, actual adoption of smart agriculture has been slow.

NIFA cites initial cost and wariness toward technology, particularly for small-sized producers who lack the competitive and economic advantage larger producers benefit from.

Lack of broadband in certain rural areas may cause difficulties when farmers try to implement the new technologies that rely on GPS systems or remote data access.

Machines use remote data access if, for example the machine makes a “data-only call back to a cell tower, back to the internet, to a series of servers,” said Lewellen. Once on the server, Lewellen explained, the machines can log in and retrieve information, such as when or which machines are running idle.

“If the machines sit in idle, they aren’t doing anything, that’s wasting fuels, polluting the atmosphere, as much as 20-30 percent of the time – that wastes a lot of money,” Lewellen said.

But with broadband feedback, that waste doesn’t exit. You “get rid of it all together,” he said.

Digital Inclusion

Rosenworcel Hails FCC’s Efforts on Mapping, Said Country Needs More Wi-Fi Access

Rosenworcel also emphasized spectrum policy and getting connectivity to low-income Americans.

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FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.

WASHINGTON, October 27, 2021 ­– Federal Communications Commission Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said Friday she is optimistic about the agency’s direction on new broadband mapping efforts and said the testing of the project has produced the best wireless coverage map in the country.

Speaking at the Marconi Society Symposium Friday, Rosenworcel said the mapping efforts are part driven by crowdsourced methods that she credited as a valuable way to ensure the maps are as accurate as possible.

The new maps are a product of the Broadband DATA Act, which is set to expand mapping efforts to make them more precise. The current mapping method, which uses Form 477 data, has led some companies to bid for federal funding in areas that are already served. The FCC is currently cleaning up the results of the $9.2 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund due to those errors.

Rosenworcel emphasizes spectrum policy

Additionally, Rosenworcel emphasized the need to improve spectrum policy. She suggested that this take place by making sure consumers benefit from competitive FCC auctions and placing more Wi-Fi access in locations where licensed airwaves see low usage.

Industry experts at the event stressed challenges that must be addressed in order to expand broadband access, such as the fact that low-income individuals will often reject offers to receive free internet. This happens because the individuals think that a free service will be low quality or that they will be tricked into paying for the service in the future.

During one panel, professor Margaret Martonosi of Princeton University explained the importance of realizing that utility functions present in rich and poor service markets are different, meaning that the appetite for internet service in richer communities is different from the appetite in poorer ones.

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Digital Inclusion

Catherine McNally: The Digital Divide is an Equality Issue

To work toward equal access, more affordable options must be created, including community-based solutions.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Catherine McNally, editorial lead for Reviews.org

Per the latest U.S. Census numbers, about one in four American households is stuck without internet. And a quarter million people with home internet still listen to the dial up screech when they hop online.

The majority of folks lacking home internet live in states with large rural populations and high rural poverty rates, like Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama.

In Mississippi, as an example, 60% of homes don’t have broadband, satellite or dial up. And 53% of the state’s population is considered rural with a rural poverty rate of 23%.

Limited options and slow speeds top the list of reasons why rural states are home to high numbers of disconnected households. But steep costs are the most imminent barrier to home internet in rural areas.

According to a 2020 report on worldwide internet pricing by Cable.co.uk, the U.S. is the most expensive country for internet out of all developed Western nations. Here, internet costs an average of $60 a month. Internet in the cheapest country, Ukraine, costs an average of $6.40 a month.

Digital divide deep dive: Issaquena County, Mississippi

Issaquena County is Mississippi’s least-connected county with only 20% of homes paying for an internet connection. The median income there is $14,154 per individual in 2019, compared to a $31,133 national median income. The overall poverty rate in the county is 29%, which is about 16% higher than the U.S. as a whole.

That is a glaring contrast to the most-connected county in the most-connected state: Morgan County, Utah. Morgan County is home to 95% of households with an internet connection, the median individual income there was $37,091 in 2019 and the overall poverty rate is 3%.

Residents of Issaquena County are lucky if they can get download speeds of 25 Mbps, which is the Federal Communication Commission’s current definition of “high speed internet.” The slowest speeds available, 5–12 Mbps, are barely enough to stream in HD, let alone connect to a Zoom call.

If we narrow down our view to Valley Park, a town of just over 100 people in Issaquena County, we see that some residents have the option of a single AT&T DSL internet plan.

The AT&T plan costs $660 a year for speeds of 25 Mbps, which barely keep up with critical modern-day online tools like online learning and telehealth.

Our case study of Issaquena County and Valley Park, Mississippi, highlights further opportunities tied to home connectivity and equality:

  • Access to online learning. About 23.7% of Issaquena County residents have obtained a high school degree, while 3.2% have no schooling. Online education allows individuals to expand their knowledge and further their careers.
  • Greater access to livable wages.5% of residents earn a household income of $10k or less. This is further divided by race: In 2019, Black and African American residents earned a median household income of $21,146, while white residents earned a median household income of $52,188.
  • More employment opportunities. The employment rate in Issaquena County has steadily declined since 1990. Now, 10.6% of residents are considered unemployed.
  • Better access to health care. The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration found that half of Mississippi’s residents live in counties with more than 2,000 patients per primary care physician. Issaquena County has been designated a Medically Underserved Area since 1978, meaning the county has a shortage of primary care, dental and/or mental health providers. Better access to telehealth also enables residents who cannot make the drive to the nearest hospital or clinic.

Solving the digital divide

To work toward equal access, more affordable options must be created. The Emergency Broadband Benefit fund is one option, but it remains largely untapped by American households. Subsidies like Lifeline may also lower barriers to internet access, but participation remains low.

Community-focused solutions are likely a better answer, such as Land O’Lakes’s American Connection Project. The project opened more than 2,800 free public Wi-Fi locations in spots like the Tractor Supply Store in Spooner, Wisconsin, in order to keep farming communities connected.

Also significant is this year’s infrastructure bill, which calls on states to determine localized needs and strategies for improving affordability and access to the internet.

State sponsored projects may also solve the severe lack of competition between U.S. broadband services. This should reduce costs last-mile providers incur to connect to middle-mile networks, which could, and should, pass savings down to households. Case in point: California recently introduced an open access middle-mile project with the goal of providing nondiscriminatory access. The bill passed unanimously.

A modernized definition of what qualifies as “high speed internet” would also benefit rural households. Currently, the standard of 25 Mbps download speeds and 3 Mbps upload speeds shorts rural users of opportunities tied to telehealth, online learning and remote work.

This outdated definition allows service providers to complete minimum-viable network expansions and mark areas as “connected.” It also de-incentivizes providers to improve existing-but-subpar networks, such as the 10 Mbps DSL line I found offered in nearby Morton, Mississippi.

One thing is clear: The way the U.S. has approached internet access in the past does not work. New strategies and policies are required to repair the digital divide. Internet access is a right, not a privilege in today’s world.

Catherine McNally is an Editorial Lead for Reviews.org, where she reviews internet service providers across the US. She has a passion for using data to highlight the need for better internet access across the US and believes that internet is a critical lifeline in today’s world. She has also published speed test and pricing reports to help everyday consumers make informed decisions. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Education

National Non-Profit to Launch Joint Initiative to Close Broadband Affordability and Homework Gap

EducationSuperHighway is signing up partners and will launch November 4.

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Evan Marwell, founder and CEO of Education Super Highway.

WASHINGTON, October 18, 2021 – National non-profit Education Super Highway is set to launch a campaign next month that will work with internet service providers to identify students without broadband and expand programs that will help connect the unconnected.

On November 4, the No Home Left Offline initiative will launch to close the digital divide for 18 million American households that “have access to the Internet but can’t afford to connect,” according to a Monday press release.

The campaign will publish a detailed report with “crucial data insights into the broadband affordability gap and the opportunities that exist to close it,” use data to identify unconnected households and students, and launch broadband adoption and free apartment Wi-Fi programs in Washington D.C.

The non-profit and ISPs will share information confidentially to identify students without broadband at home and “enable states and school districts to purchase Internet service for families through sponsored service agreements,” the website said.

The initiative will run on five principles: identify student need, have ISPs create sponsored service offerings for school districts or other entities, set eligibility standards, minimize the amount of information necessary to sign up families, and protect privacy.

The non-profit said 82 percent of Washington D.C.’s total unconnected households – a total of just over 100,000 people – have access to the internet but can’t afford to connect.

“This ‘broadband affordability gap’ keeps 47 million Americans offline, is present in every state, and disproportionately impacts low-income, Black, and Latinx communities,” the release said. “Without high-speed Internet access at home, families in Washington DC can’t send their children to school, work remotely, or access healthcare, job training, the social safety net, or critical government services.”

Over 120 regional and national carriers have signed up for the initiative.

The initiative is another in a national effort to close the “homework gap.” The Federal Communications Commission is connected schools, libraries and students using money from the Emergency Connectivity Fund, which is subsidizing devices and connections. It has received $5 billion in requested funds in just round one.

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