Although internet access has become an essential part of modern life, much of rural America remains unconnected. Closing this digital divide between urban and rural America has been a stated priority for both Democrats and Republicans, including President Biden. But the Federal Communications Commission, which is charged with running several programs to bring the internet to rural America, continues to ignore the systems best equipped to do so. Private-sector companies like John Deere have come to recognize the usefulness of satellite internet services for rural America; it’s time the FCC followed suit.
While most Americans only have to think about which internet provider will give them the best deal, many rural Americans are concerned with whether they have internet access at all. The lack of connectivity has serious implications for an agricultural industry that is increasingly reliant on “smart” agricultural equipment such as tractors, harvesters, and combines that require an internet connection. By the latest count, approximately 17 percent of rural lands have no access to broadband at all and, according to John Deere, 30 percent of farmland in the U.S. lacks sufficient broadband to run the types of equipment it hopes to connect using satellite services, leaving many farmers and ranchers without the means to take advantage of modern equipment.
Traditional broadband infrastructure—laying fiber-optic cables or setting up cell towers—is prohibitively expensive in rural areas, owing to the vast distances and low population density. For private companies focused on the bottom line, the return on investment in these areas is often insufficient to justify the expense. Following the model of mid-20th century rural electrification programs, the federal government has attempted to make serving rural Americans with broadband more cost effective through grant and subsidy programs, but many areas remain unserved. For these areas, satellite internet is a beacon of hope.
In recent years, satellite internet technology has made large strides. Unlike traditional broadband services that require extensive ground infrastructure and can be difficult to deploy in rural areas, satellites launched into low-earth orbit can beam internet access directly to hard-to-reach areas. Companies like SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, promise to deliver high-speed internet to the most isolated corners of the planet.
As satellite internet services have matured, the private sector has come to recognize the potential for satellite internet to revolutionize rural connectivity. Nowhere is this more clear than in the agriculture industry, where precision farming and data analytics are becoming increasingly important. John Deere, the most well-known agricultural company in America, recently inked a deal with Starlink to “propel the tractor maker’s digital farming push and help automate planting and harvesting in remote locations.”
Despite these developments, the FCC has been slow to adapt its funding and policies to fully support satellite internet. The Commission oversees several programs designed to subsidize and expand broadband access in rural areas, such as the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. However, there’s been a reluctance to allow satellite internet providers to compete on an equal footing for these funds. Just last month, the Commission reaffirmed its decision to rescind a $900 million grant awarded to Starlink under RDOF under questionable circumstances.
As FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, who opposed the decision, commented, the Commission revoked the award by holding “Starlink to a standard that [the FCC] has made up on the fly,” one that “no entity could ever pass,” in spite of significant evidence that the company could meet the requirements imposed on more traditional providers.
The private sector, often a bellwether for innovation, has already started integrating satellite internet into its operations. It’s time for the FCC to catch up. By opening up federal funding programs to satellite internet providers, the Commission can spur competition and innovation in the rural broadband market. This doesn’t mean abandoning traditional broadband expansion but rather complementing it with satellite technology to create a more inclusive, holistic approach to connectivity. By doing so, it can ensure that rural America is not left behind in the digital age, empowering these communities with the connectivity they need to thrive in the 21st century.
Luke Hogg is the director of outreach at the Foundation for American Innovation, where his work focuses on the intersection of emerging technologies and public policy. This Expert Opinion is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.
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