The Fiber that Binds

By Rick Purnell

Businesses today need reliable, fast broadband connectivity to thrive. Yet, a 2019 study commissioned by the United Soybean Board (USB) revealed 60 percent of U.S. farmers say they do not have enough connectivity to run their businesses.

Data from USDA’s Economic Research Service indicate farming contributes nearly $133 billion of the country’s gross domestic product. And based on the USB survey, lack of connectivity negatively affects farmers responsible for $80 billion of gross domestic product. Other findings in the study revealed:

  • 78 percent of farmers have no choice of internet service providers
  • 60 percent of farmers say their internet service is slow
  • 40 percent of farmers have a fixed internet connection, while others rely on satellite connections
  • More than half of those surveyed are hindered from incorporating more technology into their operations because of poor connectivity.

Help is on the Way

As broadband providers statewide race to meet the demand for quality, high-speed connectivity, federal and state governments are offering help. As part of a USDA loan program to help providers build, expand and improve broadband services, Montrose Mutual Telephone company in Dietrich, Illinois, was awarded funds to convert its legacy copper system to a fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) network.

Connect Illinois is the state’s largest-ever broadband expansion with public and private funds totaling $115 million. The initiative intends to bring universal access to all communities by 2024, especially the ag sector. It kicked off in June with the goal of delivering high-speed internet access to more than 26,000 homes, businesses, farms and community institutions.

Based on applications received, Connect Illinois provided grants to 18 internet service providers, rural phone co-ops and local governments. In addition, 28 projects were funded to get high-speed internet to multiple communities. A second round of grants is expected later this year.

It’s High Time

Troy Nimrick, general manager of Oneida Telephone Exchange in Oneida, Illinois, says timing couldn’t be better for the Connect Illinois grant they received. The company installed fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) in 2011 and 2012 and is expanding into a rural community that will serve 380 locations. The grant will cover about 22.5 miles of fiber to homes, farms and other businesses.

“Now more than ever, broadband is a necessity,” Nimrick says. “We’ve seen an increase in broadband use during the COVID-19 pandemic. And, quality broadband, whether it be here or elsewhere in Illinois, allows people to work from home, students to complete coursework online, rural residents to video conference with medical professionals and farmers to submit acreage reports to USDA and crop insurance companies as a few examples of many.”

Management at Madison Communications Company in Staunton, Illinois agrees. Len Schwartz, vice president of operations, has seen the company grow from 1,500 lines to 11,000 homes.

“The opportunities for rural broadband to provide voice, video and high-speed internet data are practically endless right now, he says. “This grant, along with our ongoing capital investments, helps us expand product offerings to additional served and underserved locations.”

Serve Locally, Compete Globally

When completing its application for the Connect Illinois grant, Madison stayed true to its roots and included input from ag industry sources who would benefit from its buildout strategy.

“Our farmers are focused on precision ag and all it encompasses,” Mary Westerhold, chief financial officer, says. “They need the ability to manage tasks remotely, whether that be a grain bin or grain drying. Even in livestock and dairy segments, we have producers using remote technology for surveillance.”

Kim Harber, Madison senior vice president, adds this approach is critical to other sectors of the community, as well.

“Illinois is an ag-based economy and it drives virtually every economic sustainability model you can produce,” he says. “We also work closely with our partners in healthcare and education to develop the broadband connectivity they need, not the broadband we sell. This helps develop the social fabric with online access for initiatives we could only dream of when we first started, such as telehealth, clinical research and patient access to remote diagnostic testing.

“When you couple this with distance learning and advanced workforce development, all of which support agriculture, we can provide needed training in rural areas,” Harber adds. “In turn, these investments help our farmers reach a global customer base.”

Stay Connected to Customers

The importance of global connectivity can’t be overstated, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. Soybean Export Council (USSEC) is the checkoff-funded organization that helps build preference and demand for U.S. soybeans and soy products worldwide. Its teams acted quickly and aggressively to stay connected with customers in multiple countries when it became apparent in-person events were no longer possible.

USSEC personnel created the virtual Global Digital Conference and Situation Report that took place in mid-April. The event provided global U.S. soy customers with the latest information about supply and demand during the pandemic, its implications for the global soy marketplace and the ability of U.S soy to meet export demand.

“USSEC was one of the first groups to determine which online platforms and formats would work for its customers,” Amy Roady, director of outreach for Illinois Soybean Association (ISA), says. “An interesting approach they took with this event was to offer sessions at 8:00 a.m. Central time and again at 8:00 p.m. Central time for two days to allow participants from time zones worldwide to participate. The programming featured a combination of prerecorded sessions and live panels, which worked well.

“I was impressed with the formatting and how the program delivered valuable information,” Roady adds. “It was a bit harder to engage people during the virtual trade show, but we found ways to interact quite well.”

The success of the event motivated the ISA trade and export team, which also includes Andrew Larson, Eric Woodie and David Headley, to participate with a virtual trade show booth during the Pan-Asia Soy Foods Summit and Asia Trade Exchange 2020 in June. Working alongside USSEC staff, the virtual events allowed ISA to reach customers in Southeast Asia and Oceania. ISA staff and contractors also participated in the Asia Trade Exchange in June.

“Based on our experiences and USSEC feedback, we’re reaching more people and connecting with those we didn’t have time to meet during previous events,” Roady says. “The virtual events are allowing USSEC and ISA to broaden our network of contacts, so that when we resume in-person events, we’ll know more about our customers.”

From Dietrich to Oceania to Oneida to Staunton and all points in between, reliable digital connectivity is key to strengthening communities of all kinds.

“Further access to broadband will give residents, students, farmers, ranchers and businesses the chance to compete with those in urban areas, even worldwide,” Nimrick says. “It’s one reason rural service providers will continue to invest in rural America.”