WASHINGTON, Oct. 14, 2015 - Senators on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee last week heard just how crucial expanding broadband infrastructure into the country’s most remote, and least populous areas is to bolstering the economic potential of rural America and sustaining advances in precision agriculture.
“Large swaths of agricultural land in the United States – where people do not reside, but where they work and contribute to the rural and national economy – are wholly lacking broadband coverage,” testified Cory Reed, senior vice president of intelligent solutions for John Deere.
More than half (53 percent) of rural Americans don’t have access to Internet with at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download/3 Mbps upload speeds – the slowest speeds the Federal Communications Commission say qualify as “broadband” – when only 9 percent of urbanites go without.
“The rapid adoption of information technologies and services across the agricultural economy today is no less significant than was the introduction of mechanization to farming almost 100 years ago,” Reed said. The most important technologies to modern, precision agriculture are wireless data transfer systems and GPS-enabled machinery – both of which need reliable broadband access to function, he said.
Wireless Internet access allows farmers access to data communications both on and off the tractor, Reed said. For instance on the tractor, farmers can receive real-time information on field conditions, weather and other environmental factors, and manage fleets and collect data needed for regulatory compliance. Off the tractor, data collected on the field can be sent to another machine, a database housed on the farm, to John Deere or other companies and be aggregated and analyzed alongside millions of other data points collected across the country.
By using a Global Positioning System (GPS) that allows for sub-inch level accuracy in the planting of seed and the application of fertilizer and pesticides, farmers can reduce their fuel, labor and water costs. Accenture, a company that provides a precision ag service, estimates the benefits of using these systems together could add up to $55 to $110 per acre in increased profit and 15 percent greater overall improved crop productivity.
On a macro-scale, these technologies allow farmers to tackle the “growing challenges” of environmental sustainability and conservation compliance, said Reed, by reducing the amount of nutrient and sediment runoff from their land that could otherwise impair waterways. They also help farmers increase yields in an era where a dramatic increase in the world’s population – estimated to exceed 9 billion people by 2050 from just over 7 billion now – is approaching, and “the supply of skilled labor for agriculture is not enough to meet (that) demand.”
“The things that are automated today are possible to do manually, but they aren’t scalable” without these technologies, Reed said. John Deere outfits all of its new tractors with third generation (3G) modems for mobile computing, and plans to increase their machines’ capacity to 4G and greater down the road.
But in order to get the most of modern farm machinery, farmers need faster Internet access – and that takes more infrastructure. That’s why John Deere supports expanding the FCC’s Mobility Fund, the wireless component of the Connect America Fund, that provides wireless carriers one-time or ongoing support to accelerate the deployment of mobile broadband and voice service infrastructure – like cell towers and broadband fiber – in unserved or high-cost areas.
The chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., noted that land procurement for cell towers in rural areas shouldn’t be as difficult as in urban areas where witnesses said permitting can take up to 10 years. Thune also indicated interest in tapping federal lands as potential sites for installing infrastructure. Currently, the White House’s Broadband Opportunity Council is inventorying federal assets that could be used for broadband build-out.
John Deere also supports expanding the scope of the FCC’s Universal Service Fund to include broadband infrastructure expansion. Currently, the USF only supports the expansion of telephone infrastructure with contributions solely from telecom carriers. If broadband carriers were also required to contribute, rural stakeholders say critical broadband expansion could happen rapidly.
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