Staying competitive in the modern farm economy takes a lot more than early mornings, good weather and skilled workers. The technology boom over the past two decades brought an array of modern tools that help farmers cut costs, conserve resources and increase yields.
In fact, some modern operations may look more like a scene out of Star Trek than your typical family farm, with drones buzzing over head to survey the land, remote soil sensors constantly feeding information across the plot, self-driving tractor trailers making their way across fields and AI robots harvesting crops at record paces.
The benefits of introducing these cutting-edge technologies not only helps farmers, but allows them to lower the price of food, help conserve our precious natural resources and prepare us for a world where food demand is expected to outpace production by 70 percent within the next 40 years.
Unfortunately, most of these tools are out of reach for the farms that lack broadband connectivity. Today, there are more than 19 million rural Americans without access to a broadband connection. As we all know, the digital divide has hit the farming economy as hard as any other industry.
That is why the Montana, Oregon, South Dakota and Wisconsin Farm Bureaus have joined a new coalition called Connect Americans Now (CAN). Our members and the farming economy as a whole simply cannot wait any longer, and CAN has an actionable plan to look beyond the status quo and embrace cutting edge technologies that promise to expand access for a fraction of the price offered by current solutions.
The persistence of the digital divide – and failures to adequately address it – are rooted in simple microeconomics. Most Americans with broadband access get their internet through a fiber optic cable. It is safe, fast and reliable. However, laying fiber can cost as much as $30,000 per mile. While a provider will certainly recoup the investment required to build a network in areas with dense populations, it becomes much more challenging to rural areas.
To remedy this issue, CAN proposes an “all of the above” approach that utilizes a combination of technologies. While expanding traditional fiber networks will be pivotal to this effort, we need to look beyond the status quo and adopt innovative solutions if we truly want to expand access throughout rural America, which is why we and our partners at CAN have endorsed the use of TV white space technology to expand access.
TV white space refers to the unused spectrum between broadcast television channels, and it is ideal for casting broadband signals long distances and over barriers such as hills, trees and buildings. A Boston Consulting Group study found that adopting this mixed technology model can cut the cost of bridging the digital divide by 80 percent compared to fiber-only solutions.
Fellow CAN member Microsoft has already developed and deployed TV white space technology to connect more than 500,000 users across the globe, and several farms are already seeing the impact. For example, the Dancing Crow Farm in Washington state is now using TV white spaces to monitor soil temperatures and moisture levels across the operation, get real-time views of different areas through wireless cameras and gather information that will help determine what should be planted next season.
Duplicating this success across the country is at our fingertips, but the FCC must take definitive action to make our plan a reality. Specifically, it is critical to ensure that sufficient TV white space spectrum is available for wireless use on an unlicensed basis in every market in the country.
This regulatory certainty would allow local service providers, equipment vendors and chip manufacturers to quicken the pace of investment in this technology, mass produce equipment to bring down costs and bring connectivity to more small businesses, homes, schools, clinics and farms across the heartland.
After so many years of watching rural America be left behind without broadband access, it is time we take an all-of-the-above approach to eliminating the digital divide and pursue concrete, actionable measures now. TV white space technology is a proven and innovative solution. We know our members are eager to begin taking advantage of these powerful precision agriculture tools, and the only thing we need to make it a reality is action in Washington.
John Youngberg is the executive vice president of the Montana Farm Bureau, and Barry Bushue, Scott VanderWal and James Holte are the presidents of the Oregon, South Dakota and Wisconsin Farm Bureaus, respectively.