Disconnected

Better Broadband a Must for Future Food Production

By Kathy Meyer

“The Chicago Board of Trade lists a grain price instantly, and, if you’re not up to speed, you lose out,” says Gary Smith, Okaw Farmers Co-op, Lovington, Ill. “The price can change in 30 seconds, and you can be selling grain for less than margin if your internet can’t keep up. Slow internet can cost farmers hundreds of dollars when trying to sell their grain.”

The grain elevator where Smith works is one of many businesses in rural Illinois communities that serves farmers who rely on high-speed internet and reliable connectivity. It’s critical for precision ag technology, efficiency and profitable food production. Yet, a disparity in broadband service exists in many rural areas compared to their urban counterparts.

Slow internet problems that frustrate agricultural business people like Smith are nothing new to farmers across Illinois. An Illinois Farm Bureau (IFB) member survey last year composed of 235 respondents from 178 towns, villages and cities, showed 75 percent reporting broadband access at home, and 61 percent with access on the farm. About two-thirds of respondents said the quality of their broadband services negatively impacts their business.

According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 39 percent of rural Americans lack access to high-speed internet compared to only four percent in urban areas. But help is on the way. Federal, state and local entities are coming together to address the digital divide.

Funding the Digital Divide

Smith points to his community’s service provider, Shawnee Communications, who worked with rural customers and government programs to bring fiber optics broadband to its service areas.

“Speed became much better when we got fiber optics a year ago,” says Smith.

Fiber optics and other high-speed internet choices are expensive to deliver to small towns like Lovington, population approximately 1,100. Matt Johnson, Shawnee Communications vice president of government policy, says USDA funding helped the company upgrade its broadband service from a copper to a fiber optic network. 

“It’s faster. It’s more reliable. Fiber optics carry data at the speed of light. Farmers can use their tractor and combine technology to collect and analyze data to make decisions in real time,” says Johnson. Shawnee Communications serves customers in Gallatin, Saline, Pope, Hardin, Johnson and Moultrie counties and surrounding areas. “We also view high-speed broadband as an economic development tool for rural communities. 

“We’re using funding opportunities to make improvements in broadband networks that will allow rural communities like Lovington to stay on the map,” he continues. “If rural areas don’t have connectivity, it’s going to become more and more difficult for small town businesses and communities to grow and support farmers in their efforts to produce food. Agriculture and local communities need a strong support system with accessible high-speed internet for economic development and quality of life. It’s important for business services, education, emergency services healthcare and all the good things that come with connectivity and rural prosperity.”

Various federal loan and grant programs are paving the way for better rural broadband access. In 2018, USDA announced its ReConnect Program offering up to $600 million in loans and grants to help build broadband infrastructure. The initiative will provide approximately $200 million in grants; $200 million for loan and grant combinations; and $200 million for low-interest loans.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the ReConnect Program saying, “High-speed internet e-Connectivity is a necessity, not an amenity, vital for quality of life and economic opportunity, so we hope rural communities kick off their rural broadband project planning.”

Last year, the FCC Connect America Fund also awarded nearly $1.5 billion to build broadband networks in underserved areas nationwide. About $100 million was allocated for Illinois.

Building Out Broadband

State government is also taking action to find solutions for better rural broadband service. In January, the Illinois General Assembly enacted legislation, Public Act 100-0833, aimed at advancing the build-out of broadband networks throughout the state. The law will establish a 27-member advisory council to study and discuss what can be done to expand rural broadband. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) will oversee the council.

“Certainly, rural broadband has the attention of policy makers at the state and federal levels,” says Randy Nehrt, president, Illinois Telecommunications Association. “Broadband service has become a critical service for people throughout the country, especially for rural areas who need that connectivity.

“Deploying high-speed internet in rural areas can be difficult because of geography and population density. Broadband networks are expensive to build, especially where there is a long distance from one person to the next. It’s difficult for companies to make the investment profitable through the rates they charge,” explains Nehrt. “The FCC Connect America Fund and USDA loan and grant programs help bring internet to rural areas. The constant evolution in technology will improve connections as well.”

Illinois Telecommunications represents 50 telecommunications companies in Illinois, both rural co-ops and rural corporations that provide broadband services to small communities. 

“Like so many industries, agriculture has seen improvement in productivity and efficiency through the use of high-speed internet technology,” says Nehrt. “It makes it easier to communicate to suppliers, monitor market prices, access weather information and all the many ways they access information to make farming decisions.” 

Access to rural broadband goes beyond what happens on the farm. “There’s a one-to-one relationship between access to high-speed broadband and economic development in rural communities,” says Jeffrey Connor, chief operating officer, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). He points out that while a lot of time has been spent on the policy side of the issue, “there are still 23 million Americans that don’t have access to broadband internet. The FCC calculates that about 6.3 million of these households are in electric co-op areas.

“Our members are in the electric business, and they’re also in the quality of life business for rural communities,” he says. “Broadband issues are front and center for electric co-ops to make rural communities sustainable for generations to come. That means high-speed internet access to run farms and the small community businesses that support them, plus provide educational opportunities and quality healthcare.”

Connor thinks society sometimes overlooks the importance of rural communities and agriculture to the prosperity of the country. “Rapidly changing technology depends upon connecting farmers, businesses and communities to feed people around the world,” he says. “It’s going to take a partnership of community advocates, policy makers, federal, state and local funding to make rural broadband technology match that of its urban neighbors.”

Disconnected: Better Broadband a Must for Future Food Production