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Precision Agriculture is About Harvesting Data as Well as Harvesting Fields, Say Experts at FCC Task Force Meeting

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WASHINGTON, March 25, 2020— “We won’t be calling it precision farming anymore, we’ll just be calling it farming,” announced Ken Sudduth, an agricultural engineer at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.

Sudduth spoke Wednesday at a monthly electronic meeting of the Federal Communication Commission’s Precision Agriculture Connectivity Task Force.

Sudduth made the argument during his presentation to listeners that precision agriculture is at an inflection point, representing technology that is changing hands from early adopters to mainstream farmers.

Precision agriculture refers to the ability to use broadband, large data sets, and drones to optimize agricultural production in areas like row-crop farming, broad-acre farming, dairy production, and even botanical disease identification.

Precision agriculture, Sudduth explained will allow farmers to increase their profits while also minimizing impact to the environment. We’re “not just harvesting fields but we’re harvesting data,” Sudduth said.

The improvements wrought by precision agriculture will improve the value chain “from farm to fork.” Sudduth used this phrase to describe the possibility of farmers using this technology to produce precision foods— matching the nutrients of specific plants with the genotype of an individual for optimal health.

Craig Ganssle, founder and CEO of Farmwave and another participant on the webinar, described his company’s strides in scaling precision agriculture. He described Farmwave as the first artificial intelligence library on plant pathology,  adding that USDA and 16 U.S. universities use the AI library.

Amazingly, Farmwave’s visual recognition software called Vision Computing can use footage of a farmer’s infected crop and return an accurate result: corn leaf blight. This same technology will be able to accurately estimate the number of kernels on an ear of corn and the number of ears of corn on a plot of land. This grants farmers razor sharp precision in understanding their yield and allows them to optimize growth for future harvests.

Sudduth and Ganssle spoke at a conference call for the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Task Force, but not all participants agreed with that label. “Calling it precision agriculture was a little narrow,” Teddy Bekele, chief of the task force admitted, of the name.

A colleague of Bekele’s chimed in that “it’s the entire agriculture community” that this task force represents, and therefore it should choose a name that’s more reflective of that inclusion.

Other participants had problems with the name’s length. “Our task force name is a little unwieldy,” another member said of the group, whose full name is “Task Force for Reviewing the Connectivity and Technology Needs of Precision Agriculture in the United States.”

He also mentioned how he has trouble remembering all the words in the task force name. He suggested using “an acronym” or something that’s “more to the point” and argued that this would improve communications.

“Marketing is important,” another colleague said.

David Jelke was a Reporter for Broadband Breakfast. He graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in neuroscience. Growing up in Miami, he learned to speak Spanish during a study abroad semester in Peru. He is now teaching himself French on his iPhone.

Broadband's Impact

Tech Trade Group Report Argues for USF Funding from Broadband Companies

Consulting firm Brattle Group said in a report the move would be economically sound.

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Screenshot of Chip Pickering, INCOMPAS CEO

WASHINGTON, September 19, 2023 – Tech company trade group INCOMPAS and consulting firm Brattle Group released on Tuesday a report arguing for adding broadband providers as contributors to the Universal Service Fund.

The USF spends roughly $8 billion each year to support four programs that provide internet subsidies to low-income households, health care providers, schools, and libraries. The money comes from a tax on voice service providers, causing lawmakers to look for alternative sources of funding as more Americans switch from phone lines to broadband services.

The Federal Communications Commission administers the fund through the Universal Service Administration Company, but has left it to Congress to make changes to the contribution pool.

The report argues that broadband providers should be one of those sources. It cites the fact that USF funds are largely used for broadband rather than voice services and that broadband adoption is increasing as phone line use decreases.

“The USF contribution base needs to change to account for the fact that connectivity implies not just voice telephone services, but predominantly broadband internet access,” the report says.

It also rebuts arguments for adding tech companies like INCOMPAS members Google and Amazon to the contribution pool, saying they represent a less stable source of income for the program and that added fees for services like streaming could affect . 

The report is the latest salvo in an ongoing dispute between tech companies and broadband providers over who should support the USF in the future, with broadband companies arguing big tech should be tapped for funding as they run businesses on the networks supported by the fund.

Sens. Ben Lujan, D-N.M., and John Thune, R-S.D. established in May a senate working group to explore potential reforms to the program. The group heard comments in August  from associations of tech and broadband companies, each outlining arguments for including the other industry in the USF contribution base.

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Universal Service

Rural Providers Urge FCC to Verify Unsubsidized Coverage Ahead of Enhanced ACAM Awards

The FCC’s challenge process is insufficient to allocate Enhanced ACAM funds, the Rural Broadband Association said.

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Screenshot of Michael Romano, executive vice president of the NTCA

WASHINGTON, September 18, 2023 – Rural broadband companies are pushing the Federal Communications Commission to require unsubsidized providers to prove their coverage in rural areas.

The calls come weeks after the FCC announced funding offers under the Enhanced Alternative Connect America Cost Model, or Enhanced ACAM. The model allocates support to providers already receiving funding through the Universal Service Fund.

The new allocation of funds takes into account whether an area is already served at the required speed threshold – 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload, faster than the previous Connect America Cost Model – by an unsubsidized provider. Areas the FCC deemed to be served only by an unsubsidized provider were excluded from awards and less money was made available to recipients operating in the same area as an unsubsidized provider.

Providers who were offered Enhanced ACAM funding must accept or decline their offers by September 29, but the FCC will accept challenges from awardees and make adjustments to the awards until 2025.

In a September 15 filing to the FCC, NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association said the process for challenging these determinations is insufficient and urged the agency to require unsubsidized carriers to certify their reported coverage where Enhanced ACAM funds .

The challenge process is lacking, the association said, because it relies on the FCC’s broadband map and the accompanying challenge procedures. 

The map data includes maximum speeds available at a given location, but it does not reflect potential decreases in speed that happen when many people are simultaneously using a fixed wireless network – the technology many rural providers use – and does not include information on standalone voice service, which a provider must offer to meet the agency’s definition of an unsubsidized competitor.

The agency told Enhanced ACAM recipients to submit concerns on these and other issues not captured by the map via public comment in its docket system and to challenge unsubsidized coverage and speeds through its standard broadband map challenge process

FCC speed data is also difficult to challenge, the NTCA said in its filing. Challenges alleging a carrier’s provided speed is lower than that recorded in the data cannot be submitted in bulk, but must be submitted individually. That makes it difficult to determine if an unsubsidized provider offers lower speeds than they reported for large areas.

Requiring certifications from unsubsidized providers would provide “a well-structured and well-defined supplemental process,” for submitting challenges to Enhanced ACAM allocations, the association wrote.

The NTCA met with agency officials ahead of the award announcements to ask for the same certification, according to an ex parte filing from July 24.

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Rural Utilities Service

White House Nominates Basil Gooden as Rural Development Chief at USDA

Gooden would be responsible for overseeing the activities of the Rural Utilities Services, an important broadband funding agency.

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Photo of Basil Gooden from Virginia Tech's web site.

WASHINGTON, September 11, 2023 – The White House on Monday announced the nomination of Basil Gooden for Under Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack touted the nomination in a statement, saying that Gooden “is a widely-respected, accomplished champion for affordable housing, community advancement, and economic development. His public service career is informed by a lifelong commitment to agriculture and rural development.”

Gooden is the current director of state operations for rural development at USDA.

If confirmed for the position, Gooden would be responsible for overseeing the activities of the Rural Utilities Services, which encompasses the Water and Environment Programs, the Electric Program, and the Telecommunications Program, which is dedicated to improving the quality of life for rural Americans through providing funds to deploy rural telecommunications infrastructure.

The administration may seek additional funding for broadband through the department. RUS Administrator Andy Berke, the former mayor of Chatanooga, Tenn., who also served as a Commerce Department official with the title, “special representative for broadband.”

Running USDA’s Rural Utilities Service Isn’t Andy Berke’s First Act in Broadband

If selected for the position, Gooden would fill the void left behind by Xochitl Torres Small, who resigned from the role and was later confirmed by the Senate as deputy secretary of agriculture this past July.

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