By Zippy Duvall
When we start talking about infrastructure improvements, most Americans can easily think of a local highway they’d like to see widened and smoothed out or a nearby bridge that needs upgrading. Farmers and ranchers are no exception when it comes to taking an interest in better roads, railways and waterways: We depend on safe and reliable infrastructure to get our products to market. But in today’s fast-paced global economy, high-speed internet has become just as critical a pathway to customers near and far. That’s why Farm Bureau is urging the administration to address rural America’s broadband needs as it develops its infrastructure improvement plan.
Too often, rural America has been left in the dust when it comes down to actual spending on infrastructure. Communications infrastructure is no different. We’re working to make sure that the administration brings rural America up to speed. Rural communities connect our farmers and ranchers to the rest of the world. The speed and bandwidth of those connections play a part in the efficiency of our nation’s food, fuel and fiber production. It’s hard to believe in today’s digital age, but 39 percent of rural Americans today still lack access to the Federal Communications Commission’s defined broadband speed of at least 25 Mbps/3Mbps. Without those respective download and upload speeds, rural Americans are left behind, unable to stream and share real-time data, images and videos. By comparison, only 4 percent of urban Americans are without that same access.
A lack of access shouldn’t be confused with a lack of demand either. Research shows that the rural broadband industry has boosted our nation’s economy by $24.1 billion and has led to the creation of nearly 70,000 jobs.
I recently visited several farms in Maine, where an organic potato seed grower told me that he depends on the internet for 75 percent of his sales. However, he lacks high-speed internet and the cost to bring it to his farm is too high. His ability to benefit from e-commerce is limited.
High-speed internet shouldn’t be a luxury. It has become as basic to daily life and business in the 21st century as electricity became early on in the last century. For most urban and suburban Americans, it’s a given that they can fire up their phones and computers to instantly connect to the world around them.
Today, online tools bring educational programs, health services and business resources right to our doorsteps. This kind of access is especially critical in rural America where folks can be far removed from resources that can improve their way of life and help boost their local economy. A rural entrepreneur in North Carolina can get training to improve her business and reach clients hundreds—even thousands—of miles away. A family living 50 miles from the nearest town in southwestern Idaho can receive a virtual house call from a doctor via video chat. And a farmer on the Kansas prairie can upload field data straight from his farm equipment to analyze his crops and apply just the right amount of fertilizer exactly where it’s needed.
Modern farming has made great strides in the last several decades thanks to developments in precision ag tools and technology. Yet, in the same way a smartphone is nothing more than a mobile phone when it’s not connected to a high-speed wireless network, precision ag equipment cannot reach its full potential without access to broadband in the fields. If we’re going to continue reducing our environmental impact and growing more with less, we must be able to optimize the latest technology to analyze our inputs and yields and connect to resources and services that help make our farms smarter and more sustainable.
Broadband is not a luxury for a farmer who wants to stay competitive in today’s marketplace; it’s a necessity. An urban business wouldn’t go hours, much less a day, without access to high-speed internet. Why are business owners across rural America expected to get by with far less? Getting all of rural America connected to high-speed internet, and the services and opportunities that brings, can strengthen our rural communities and help farmers produce more of the American-grown products we all enjoy.
Vincent “Zippy” Duvall, a poultry, cattle and hay producer from Greene County, Georgia, is the 12th president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. You can follow him on Twitter @ZippyDuvall.