The Rural-Urban Digital Divide

Weak Rural Internet Connectivity Slows Ag Technologies

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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Farmers using newer technologies need faster upload speeds as they attempt to upload data from the field and use telematics. (DTN/The Progressive Farmer file photo)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Jason Schielke, an IT specialist for Frahm Farmland in Colby, Kansas, is a patient person. It's a good thing he is: Wireless data transfers from the field can take time where Internet connectivity is weak.

"We have spotty coverage here through the cellular service which John Deere uses," Schielke told DTN. "We probably have to download 10%-20% of data manually."

It's certainly not breaking news that rural areas often have slower Internet speeds compared to urban areas. Internet and cellphone providers want to cover as many people as they can, so they focus on providing service to more populated regions.

Weak Internet connectivity in rural areas may be to blame for keeping some farmers and ag businesses from fully incorporating newer technologies into their businesses. Experts say there may not be much people in rural areas can do about weak Internet in the short term.

UPLOAD SPEEDS SLOW

Terry Griffin, Kansas State University assistant professor of agricultural economics, said it is no secret cell companies will put up more infrastructure in residential areas before rural areas. The term "wireless" is a bit misleading, he said, since wireless networks actually needs wires in the form of fiber optic cables added to existing phone lines as well as cell towers.

Because of this, the lack of Internet connectivity sometimes hinders how farmers and ag businesses transfer data in the field.

"Moving data for farmers is down the line quite a bit," Griffin told DTN.

One technology that has been limited some by slow Internet connectivity is telematics, which is the passing of data wirelessly. Griffin said a Purdue University study showed about 20% of service providers have customers who are using telematics, up from 15% in 2013.

"Here in Kansas, I would guess it is probably closer to 10% of farmers and ag businesses are using telematics," he said.

Griffin said he wonders why it is not being adopted at a higher rate.

Farm size matters as farmers with 12,000 acres say they would be more willing to invest in the technology than a farmer who is farming 1,200 acres. While farm size factors into this, Griffin believes the bigger issue with telematics not being utilized more is the lack of rural Internet connectivity in many areas.

Cellphone providers have focused more on download speeds and less on upload speeds in general, Griffin said. Farmers using newer technologies need faster upload speeds as they attempt to upload data from the field and use telematics. Even in areas that have sufficient Internet connections, the lack of uploading speeds is a still a problem, he said.

FARMERS MOVE DATA

Frahm Farmland, a 30,000-acre corn and wheat farming operation owned and operated by Lon Frahm in Colby, Kansas, uses wireless data transfers and uploads field information to a John Deere website, said IT specialist Schielke. They utilize both a land-based local Internet service which provides an Internet connection at the farm office as well as a cellular plan.

The local Internet, which is the only option for Internet at the farm, is supposed to have a download speed of 10 megabits per second (Mbps), but it rarely does over 5 Mbps, Schielke said. Upload is 0.91 Mbps, which is fairly slow, he said. At different points of time he will have to upload data in the evening to assure he has enough time to complete this process.

Frahm Farmland also has a business account from their cellphone provider to move data during peak seasons, such as harvest. They use iPads and iPhones to move this data, and they can use 30 to 40 gigabytes of data per month.

Moving data can be "super slow" at times when using the land-based local Internet provider, Schielke said. The cell provider has their area covered pretty well and has decent speeds, but the data plan limitations make the cellular-based Internet very unattractive for use in the office in place of their land-based package, which has no data volume limitations.

"Our hands are kind of tied -- we have no other providers both land-based and cellphone, and we only have 8,000 people in the whole county," he said. "I understand the economics of why we don't have more choices here, but we still need to move data."

The only other Internet options for the people of Thomas County would be either dial-up or utilizing land-based local Internet, Schielke said. The downside to the local Internet is it is only available 12-13 miles outside of Colby with a clear line of site to the tower. This is a site-to-site wireless system that has limitations, he said.

Jeremy Flikkema, a farmer from Lanark, Illinois, said he does have some concerns about attempting to keep up with wireless technology and what the next generation of connectivity will look like. Access to fast Internet is not really an issue in his area of northern Illinois, but it can be cost-prohibitive.

"A lot of the connectivity we use is through cellular, which is one of the higher costs," Flikkema said. "We wish we could have a large wireless network that we could access over most of our acres. That would reduce the dependence on cell company data."

As with Schielke, Flikkema said his home area is also only covered by one particular cellphone company. If they could get more reliable networks, his options could be expanded, he said.

From the field, he accesses Dropbox data as well as email, markets and applications for recording field data such as FieldView.

"Automation is going to be big going forward, and having an economic, viable way of doing so is huge; otherwise, we may as well just use a USB," he said.

RURAL/URBAN DIGITAL DIVIDE

A distinct rural/urban digital divide exists as rural areas with low population density are costly to serve and often have received service that is considerably slower than in more populated regions. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a 2016 Broadband Progress report earlier this year which found nearly 40% of rural America lacked access to broadband speeds of 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload compared to just 4% of urban areas.

Brian Whitacre, associate professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University, has studied rural broadband issues. He said the government defined broadband as 25 Mbps downloading and 3 Mbps uploading in 2014-2015. This was a jump from the previous definition of 4 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up, he said.

"The data showed that 100% of urban areas had at least one provider in the area who met the prior 4/1 definition," Whitacre said. "In rural areas, this number drops to only 78% that had at least one provider providing those speeds."

Whitacre said in studies of rural broadband, lack of availability is only half of the issue. The lack of adoption is the other side of the coin that often gets ignored. Rural adoption rates of broadband tend to be 10-12 percentage points lower in rural areas compared to more urban areas, he said.

Whitacre's studies have shown that lower income levels and lower education levels are reasons why rural broadband has been slow to be adopted in many areas. Other factors like availability issues also factor into this, he said.

The availability of rural Internet does have an economic effect on an area, Whitacre said.

In rural areas where broadband is available and has been adopted, these areas have seen increases in income that are 1.3% higher than comparable rural areas without high levels of broadband adoption. In addition, poverty rates have dropped 2%-3% compared to areas that don't have broadband, Whitacre said.

"Those may not seem like huge numbers percentage-wise, but these are meaningful results which can really affect rural areas," he said.

As for the future of rural broadband, Whitacre said he is optimistic both access and adoption of the technology will continue to improve in areas currently covered and expand into areas not currently served. However, this could be a slow process which could take perhaps five to 10 years.

Providers will still have to see a profit to improve Internet connectivity in some areas and expand into other areas, but Whitacre said he believes it will only improve in the future.

"We still have 3% to 4% of households still using dial-up Internet in this country," Whitacre said. "We have people, many in rural areas, who want high-speed Internet. At some point, high speed will reach these people."

Russ Quinn can be reached at russ.quinn@dtn.com

(AG/CC)

Russ Quinn