USDA pushes to bring broadband to rural areas so more farmers, ranchers can use precision ag tech

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

USDA pushes to bring broadband to more farmers, ranchers
In the coming months, the US Department of Agriculture will nearly double its current annual investment in rural telecommunications infrastructure to bring reliable, affordable high-speed Internet to underserved areas, including farmland and ranches, with the hope it will be a ‘catalyst for rural prosperity.’

Currently, approximately 24 million American households do not have reliable, affordable high-speed Internet – 80% of which are in rural areas. And while this was once considered an ‘amenity,’ USDA says it is now a ‘modern-day necessity.’

“Rural high-speed broadband e-Connectivity is as important for economic development as rail, roads, bridges and airports – and as vital as the buildouts of rural telephone networks were decades ago,”​ USDA Sec. Sonny Perdue said in a statement.

For example, high-speed broadband is key for allowing ranchers and farmers to take advantage of precision agriculture technology, such as the use of robotics, field sensors, remote monitoring and other technologies that can help them increase crop yields, streamline operations and cut costs.

“Technology is helping American businesses be more efficient, intelligent and cost-effective,”​ but “unfortunately, too many farmers and ranchers are unable to take advantage of advances in precision agriculture because rural areas lack adequate access to high-speed internet networks,”​ Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said earlier this year when the Senate Commerce Committee passed the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act of 2018.

The bill was designed to direct the Federal Communications Commission to identify gaps in connectivity for farmers and ranchers and encourage broadband adoption and precision agriculture in areas where it is not currently available.

USDA directs $600 million more to expand broadband access

To help address these shortcomings, USDA announced Aug. 30 it will provide $600 million in additional funding to expand broadband infrastructure in areas with fewer than 20,000 residents and where Internet speeds are currently capped at 10 megabits per second for downloading and 1 megabit per second for uploading content.

The funds, which were made available through the Consolidation Appropriations Act of 2018, will be disbursed through a new e-Connectivity Pilot. The agency is still ironing out the details of the pilot, but it plans to deliver the funds to broadband service providers, rural electric coops, private companies, government entities and non-profits based on their eligibility.

To best evaluate that eligibility, USDA is seeking input on the needs of those living and working in rural areas, which it is collecting through a new website: www.usda.gov/broadband​.

Once USDA has established the key parameters of the pilot program, it will publish a notice of inquiry and ultimately a notice of funds availability on a “yet-to-be-determined timetable,”​ according to the agency.

Current funds nearly doubled

The infusion of funds will build on the more than $700 million per year that the agency already invests in rural telecommunications infrastructure, according to USDA.

These funds are disbursed through Community Connect Grants, Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grants, Rural Broadband Access Loan and Loan Guarantee and Telecommunications Infrastructure Loans and Guarantees.

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