We learned a lot of things during the pandemic and for many of us it was the need for high-speed internet to conduct business, go to school, and to see and visit with family and friends. Improving rural broadband has been a topic of discussion for far too long among policymakers, but it was this past year that made it painstakingly obvious how deep the digital divide is across America.
Well-maintained roads and bridges have always been a priority for agriculture. After all, it is how we get what we produce on our farms to consumers. But now, just as important for the vitality of our rural communities and farms is broadband that is high speed and affordable.
In the spring of last year, home became the new classroom. Yet, for many others, having the car parked outside the closed library became the new classroom since their internet at home was just too slow or could not handle more than one device being connected at a time. This past school year was different for many school districts, and whether students were at home virtually learning by their choice or not, the challenges they faced due to poor internet connectivity are vast. Moving forward, we need to make sure our children have acceptable broadband so they can do their homework when they get home from school.
As farmers, you want to adopt technologies that will improve your bottom line. Many of these technologies like precision farming require broadband connections for data collection and analysis. Embracing new technology allows you to improve on your efficiency and be more sustainable than you already are.
Unfortunately, 25% of U.S. farms have no access to the internet according to the USDA (NASS Survey, conducted in August 2019). And for many that do have access, the internet is painfully slow and costly to upgrade to higher speeds, making it a burden to use and not universally available to rural residents. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), more than 30 million Americans live in areas where there is no broadband infrastructure that provides minimally acceptable speeds, representing 35% of rural Americans.
Acceptable speeds are important, but so is the cost. Anyone living in rural areas looking to increase their internet bandwidth are faced with incredible costs, where their rates at high speeds are occasionally several times higher than what their urban counterparts are offered.
Expanding and improving rural broadband is necessary to improve the quality of life for all rural residents. We learned that a lot can be done virtually through expanded services to health care, government programs, and educational and business opportunities.
Whether the business is on the farm or a small specialty shop in town, increasing the value of any business in the rural community provides a greater return through their support and employment of others in the community. Shouldn’t rural residents have the same opportunities as those in our urban areas?
Your cooperative quickly learned that virtual meetings can be useful to accomplish much of the business of the cooperative. And, while we far prefer in-person meetings because they provide a different dynamic, we know going forward that virtual meetings are part of our future, but our members need to have sufficient internet services.
Right now, in Washington D.C., the word “infrastructure” is being tossed around and it has a lot of connotations. In our rural communities, it means good, well-maintained roads and bridges but also broadband that will allow for you to thrive.