Op-Ed: How to expand broadband access in Rural America

By Guest Author

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By Jim Byrum,

Innovations in telecommunications technology are transforming the way that farmers and agri-businesses operate. As consumer choices rapidly transition away from hard-wired, copper-line networks in favor of new mobile and broadband technology, we have to make sure that rural areas aren't left out in the cold.

This means policymakers from township halls to Capitol Hill must focus on creating and updating telecom policies that support the expansion of robust broadband networks to ensure that people in every part of the country and our state have access to the tools necessary to thrive and succeed.

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Mobile broadband access equips farmers and agri-businesses with the tools they need to compete and thrive in a global economy. Many farmers are now using broadband-enabled apps for their mobile devices that help them manage markets, crops, land, livestock and commerce more efficiently. For example, farms use Geographical Information Systems to map their fields, apply crop nutrients and even steer their equipment!

Mobile broadband can also connect farmers and agri-businesses with markets around the world to help them solve problems with livestock production and crop systems, open up new learning opportunities and allow them to incorporate new and more efficient practices into their operations.

This access isn't just good for farmers. According to the National Agriculture and Rural Development Policy Center, higher broadband adoption rates translate into real economic benefits for rural areas. They found that areas where broadband adoption rates are above 60 percent show an increase in median household income, more job opportunities and decreased poverty and unemployment rates.

To build these networks and make sure that they reach consumers in rural areas as well as those in cities, networks operators will need to invest a significant amount of money. Many companies are already investing. For example, AT&T announced a program in 2012 that will spend $66 billion over three years to build IP networks in rural areas.  More investment will be needed to make sure that all consumers have access.

Policymakers on both the state and federal level have an important role to play, too. Out-of-date government regulations requiring expensive maintenance of old copper-wire phone lines rob consumers of needed and valuable investments in the future.  That cost will only grow as more and more consumers lead the transition from hard-wired networks to the mobile, wireless Internet.  Old regulations cannot drive new technology; consumers, both rural and urban, can and should.  Modern and forward-thinking state and federal policies attract investment, get out of the way of innovation and best serve consumers nationwide.

We have a rare opportunity to build communications networks that bring rural areas up to par and help businesses and farmers compete in national and global economies and access the latest information to help them be successful. Forcing providers to pour money into outdated technology is wasting money that could be better invested in next-generation technology!

Agriculture needs reliable access to mobile and broadband networks to manage their businesses, get up-to-date information and access new markets. Promoting a regulatory environment that sparks investment in this critical infrastructure will drive continued economic growth and job creation.

 

Jim Byrum is President of the Michigan Agri-Business Association

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