Transforming Digital Deserts

Broadband Startups, Fiber Networks Are Keys to Winning New Global Ag Markets

Dan Miller
By  Dan Miller , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
A March 2017 Forbes magazine article predicts great opportunity on reliably, digitally connected farms. (Progressive Farmer photo by Jake Rieke)

Jamie Blythe tries to upload a map from her office computer to her John Deere 4730 self-propelled sprayer as the driver -- her employee -- turns out onto the county road bordering her farm. Once. Twice. Several times, she tries to load the map. No go. Her spotty Wi-Fi service strikes again. Blythe recalls her operator promising a thumb drive with the map when he returns.

Erratic downloads and uploads tear away chunks of Blythe's productivity. "We're paying quite a bit of money for cloud-based services such as wireless data transfer and remote display access," she said. "However, if I can't access Wi-Fi, then I can't [use] my maps and data." Blythe operates Blythe Cotton Co., out of Town Creek, Alabama.

PLASTIC MEMORY

Urban America moves commerce at the speed of gigabits (Xfinity's $299.95 per month, X1 Gigabit Pro boasts a download speed of 2 gigabits per second, or Gbps). Farmers and ranchers, however, often work by the digital equivalent of candlelight -- where an $8.99, 32-gigabyte flash drive is an indispensable substitute for flickering, rural Wi-Fi services. When reviewing rural internet options, one tech reviewer all but gave even its best broadband recommendation a frowning emoji.

Blythe cannot farm competitively by plastic memory stick. Her data production is increasing exponentially faster than her fast-growing corn yield. She crunches numbers from soil-management zones, downloads satellite imagery and deciphers the take from drones buzzing over the top of her cotton fields. Data are the stuff informing her precision prescriptions for cotton growth regulators, for defoliants and for sidedressing wheat.

NEW ERA

A March 2017 Forbes magazine article predicts great opportunity on reliably, digitally connected farms. "The software market for ... precision-farming tools is expected to grow 14% by 2022 in the United States alone," the magazine reports. "Researchers suggest the full-scale adoption of [digital] technologies could mean an increase in farm productivity unseen since mechanization."

Jake Rieke is more digitally fortunate. He works 900 acres and finishes 21,000 hogs per year outside Fairfax, Minnesota. He has plugged his 150-year-old family operation into a fixed, terrestrial, wireless system. Different from mobile wireless or satellite systems, Rieke's wireless service originates from a fiber-connected access point. Data is delivered to his home by laser from the access point. His service downloads data at 50 megabits per second (Mbps) and uploads it at 25 Mbps.

FAST ACCESS

"I've never wanted to move off my family's homestead, but if our internet access never improved, I think I would have, if for no other reason than my daughter's education and their access to modern technology," Rieke said.

Fiber service comes to Rieke by way of Gaylord, Minnesota-based RS Fiber, a highly successful broadband cooperative with 6,200 potential customers. It serves Renville and Sibley counties, in south-central Minnesota. Rieke is board vice chairman.

Blythe searches for similar digital integration. "I have only so much time to do data collection and analysis, and it feels like it's being done by the seat of my pants." Which is a baffling statement of sorts, given the array of technology she runs on her farm. Blythe uses AgDNA and John Deere's Operations Center for data processing. She has 2630 displays and a 4640 display. She uses StarFire 3000 receivers on RTK and uses JDLink, a telematics package with Remote Display Access. Wireless Data Transfer sends data back to her office. Will Gotcher is her integrated solutions consultant with TriGreen Equipment, a Deere dealership operating in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. Through a 4G AT&T signal, Gotcher tracks the performance of Blythe's planter row units and sprayer nozzles -- the feed synced every 30 seconds. Gotcher can log directly onto Blythe's monitors -- he sees what she sees. "Streaming live data allows us to be efficient with our services," he said.

CELL DEPENDENT

But, Verizon Jetpacks are Blythe's only reliable option for wireless internet service. She pays $110 per month for an unlimited talk-text-data plan. Phones and Jetpacks cost $40 per month. Each employee carries an iPhone, as does Blythe and her husband. "Our entire farm seems to run off cell phones and my laptop. My husband jokes that everything here would completely shut down if I lost my cell phone," Blythe said.

The U.S. ranks 10th in the world for internet connectivity. Rural America contributes negatively to the ranking. Just more than 68% of rural Americans have access to both high-quality fixed and mobile services compared to 97.9% in urban areas.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) finds that 80% of the 24 million American households that do not have reliable high-speed internet service live in rural areas. The FCC says minimum broadband service includes a 25 Mbps download capability and 3 Mbps upload. By that measure, the Commission found in one study that no more than 50% of residents living in eight rural North Carolina counties had 25 Mbps access. "Rural and urban areas of North Carolina are essentially living in different realities," the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance reported. This is not an uncommon finding. More than 29% of Georgia's rural population lacks broadband access. Rural Wisconsin ranks 32nd among the states in broadband connectedness. There are 276,000 residents of Alabama who have no access to any wired internet provider. Nearly 20% of Minnesota rural residents lack the high-quality broadband connections enjoyed by the state's urban residents.

WORLD PLAYERS

"High-speed internet is not a luxury for family farmers and rural communities," contends the Minnesota Farmers Union. "Without it, farmers and communities cannot retain residents or be part of the world's economy."

Technology availability is not the problem in rural America. Instead, it is a lack of will by major telecommunications companies that would rather serve urban markets, said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "They've done a terrible job connecting rural America," he said.

MA BELL

AT&T offers that by the end of 2020, it will have used funds from the FCC's Connect America Fund Phase II program to bring internet access and voice service to 1.1 million mostly rural homes and small businesses. AT&T expects to reach rural areas in 18 states by the end of 2018, "bringing high-speed internet capability to many for the first time."

Mitchell pointed out that AT&T does not claim to offer "broadband" services, because it has only to offer 10 Mbps up and 1 Mbps down to secure most of the federal subsidies it spends.

The states have not done much better in Mitchell's view. "Most states have not invested in any reasonable way," he said, allowing, however, that, "this is beginning to change." Minnesota, for example, has approved $34 million for 42 broadband infrastructure projects through the state's Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act earlier this year. It creates a broadband accessibility grant program. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker awarded 46 grants totaling $7.68 million to connect 1,600 businesses and 18,000 residences in rural Wisconsin.

Mitchell advocates citizen advocacy as an effective way of change. "The first thing to do is to look at your local electrical and phone co-ops, even ones that don't serve you directly. Pressure local co-ops to make investments," he said.

In Lawrence County, Alabama, where Blythe farms, an alliance of residents, organizations and government raised $300,000 as a down payment on a locally controlled hybrid fiber and wireless system.

Brett Dennis lives in the Lawrence County community of Courtland (population 600) amidst its 1800s architecture. As president of the Courtland Development Council, Dennis has taken a lead role in lifting the Southern community from the "broadband desert," as he said, in which it now functions. "Businesses couldn't load at high data speeds. Farms are using thumb drives to [transfer] shapefiles. Kids can't use the internet," Dennis said. "It's hard to have people buy into Courtland if they can't work out of their homes."

More than 750 communities have built their own networks. Rural electric and telephone cooperatives are becoming players in delivering broadband services to rural areas. Two hundred telephone cooperatives manage broadband systems. Of the 900 electric cooperatives in the U.S., 60 currently offer fiber-optic internet access. Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, in Taos, New Mexico, for example, established a fiber-based internet business with the help of an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant. It laid 2,900 miles of fiber-optic lines reaching 6,300 customers.

There is high economic value in broadband. The Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota finds that areas with one to three broadband providers report 6.4% higher employment growth and 2.4% more population growth rate compared to communities without broadband.

FIBER TO THE FARM

Minnesota's RS Fiber offers a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network in the 10 Minnesota communities. The service provider plans to spend tens-of-millions to extend its fiber network into its rural service areas -- including lines directly to farms. That will be an important day to the local farm economy. RS's fiber customers choose from three service options -- 50 Mbps, 100 Mbps and 1 Gbps. "The beauty of fiber is that as demand for bandwidth increases, we can swap out lasers," Rieke said. "There's virtually unlimited capacity." Lasers with 10 times today's capacities are already knocking around the broadband marketplace. "Fiber is considered future-proof," he said.

Before his broadband upgrade, it's almost hard to comprehend the internet schedule in the Rieke home. The Rieke girls, ages 4 and 6, typically wanted to watch Netflix at lunch when Rieke wanted to get work done in the office. Wonder who won that battle? If Rieke's monitors in the tractors needed to be updated, he began the download an entire day ahead of time so he would not have to wait for it on the day he planned fieldwork.

Rieke's high-speed service has abolished schedules and ushered in new management opportunities. "I never would have installed hi-def cameras in the hog barns for livestock monitoring and security," he said. "I can now use Dropbox to share drone videos with my crop consultant or upload Ag Leader's SMS to share [data] with agronomists at United Farmers Co-op. I no longer have to plan out my day based upon who needs the internet and at what times."

Rieke suffered through dial-up and satellite service. He expects fiber will transform his farm. "We believe strongly that fiber is the multigenerational solution," he said, "and wireless is a stepping stone to get us there."

INTERNET SERVICE WITHOUT BREAKING THE BANK?

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance offers information showing how cooperatives and municipalities can bring high-speed internet service to rural communities. Find the fact sheets at ilsr.org/rural-broadband-fact-sheet.

Dan Miller can be reached at dan.miller@dtn.com

Dan Miller