“You are not connected to the internet.” This is a frustrating message for anyone to see, and sadly, it’s one that many of us in rural America have grown accustomed to. A study by Broadband Now found that 42 million Americans, mostly in rural areas, don’t have broadband internet access. As schools, businesses and government services continue to move online, broadband access isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.
I had always known the internet at my farm in Georgia was a bit slow. But when the pandemic started and I had to temporarily do my Farm Bureau work from home, I realized just how unreliable it was. I’ve had to try out different spots in my house to see if I can get a good signal. When I find one, it might not be good for long, or the internet speed is too slow. I’ve had to go to nearby county Farm Bureau offices when participating in Zoom meetings with government officials so I knew I would have reliable internet throughout the meeting.
Millions of Americans in rural communities have faced the same—or worse—struggles. When the pandemic forced schools to close and people to work from home, the digital divide grew even larger. Some people I’ve heard from had to drive over 30 miles to find a parking lot where they could access the internet for school or a Zoom meeting. Earlier this year, the American Farm Bureau joined Land O’ Lakes and 18 other organizations to form the American Connection Corps. This project aims to empower young people to move to rural areas and lead projects to expand broadband access. We can’t expect people to move to rural areas if they can’t be connected to their loved ones, their schools or their jobs through the internet. Last year, the Kentucky Farm Bureau started providing free WiFi at almost 200 locations throughout the state to help get communities online. While our Farm Bureau family is proud to care for one another, this shouldn’t have to happen.
In 2019, the Texas legislature passed a bill to create the Broadband Development Council. One of the council members was Texas Farm Bureau member and cattle rancher Lindsey Lee. Like many rural Americans, she has experienced unreliable internet firsthand. When the pandemic closed the real estate office she works at off the farm, Lindsey struggled to get her work done because she couldn’t connect to the internet. She told the Texas Farm Bureau, “We were all trying to work from home, but I spent more time in the office than my coworkers because my internet access is so terrible.”
Arizona Farm Bureau member Reed Flake shared that as his family all came home during the pandemic, they had to coordinate who had to be online and when. The bandwidth available at their home wasn’t large enough for all the family members to be doing schoolwork and attending meetings and college classes at the same time. Not far from Reed, Arizona Farm Bureau member Hayley Andrus said her veterinary practice pays a lot for satellite internet access. Even that is slow, and something as common as a strong wind can knock out service. That makes updating health papers and getting access to the latest science in veterinary medicine difficult or even impossible.
As technology on the farm continues to advance, a fast and reliable internet connection is more important than ever. Whether mapping a field, tracking markets, or updating software on equipment, farmers and ranchers need the internet to remain competitive and implement climate-smart practices.
As Congress and the administration continue to work on a bipartisan infrastructure plan, we are pleased to see that the bill passed in the Senate included a $65 billion investment in broadband expansion. While this is a good step, we need Congress to finalize this agreement and keep the investment in broadband passed by the Senate. Then, the administration must act quickly to ensure these funds are used effectively.
The internet can connect us to others across the country to share best practices, explore innovative new technologies, conduct business, learn a new skill, and stay in touch with family. The expansion of broadband access will help our rural businesses grow and remain competitive. It will help our children learn and help farmers and ranchers implement new technology on their farms that improves sustainability. With all the benefits reliable broadband access can bring, investing in this expansion isn’t just an investment in critical infrastructure but also an investment in the future of rural America.
Share with your members of Congress why broadband access is critical to the future of rural America here.
Vincent “Zippy” Duvall, a poultry, cattle and hay producer from Greene County, Georgia, is the 12th president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.