WASHINGTON — Increased government funding and infrastructure improvements have facilitated recent expansions of broadband services in rural America, though industry experts assert additional advancements are required.
In a Jan. 12 panel discussion during the 2021 American Farm Bureau Federation Virtual Convention, farmers and telecommunications experts examined the difficulties farming communities face due to broadband shortages.
According to the Federal Communications Commission’s 2020 broadband deployment report, 22.3 percent of rural Americans lack broadband services, which panelists concurred is of extreme detriment to some farmers and their communities.
“Today, farmers who can be the most efficient with their time and can best use available resources and data are the ones who are going to be successful,” Jackie Mundt, a cow-calf and grain producer from Preston, Kansas, noted during the “Staying Connected in a Virtual World” session.
“For those of us without [broadband], it’s incredibly frustrating,” she added. “This is an issue that’s standing between us and our livelihoods.”
Mundt noted she, like many other farmers, cannot utilize advanced farming technology that would improve efficiency. There is fiber-optic cable running beneath her land, but she can’t tap into it.
Complicating matters further, the location of the fiber-optic cable on Mundt’s farm on coverage maps falsely indicates that a broadband connection is available.
With the passing of the U.S. Broadband DATA Act, which was signed into law in March 2020, consumers can challenge the accuracy of broadband data and coverage maps.
Brent Legg, executive vice president of governmental affairs at Connected Nation, said the bill’s implementation gives rural Americans the collective responsibility to hold service providers accountable for their services.
“There are still many issues like this that need to be addressed,” he said.
Workshop participant Barbie Winstead, who raises cattle in Craig County, noted that while farmers’ struggles with broadband access are well-documented, they’re not the only ones affected by internet deficiencies in rural communities.
“This pandemic really brought the issue of rural broadband to the surface,” Winstead said. “We’ve become so much more aware of our rural children who can’t access their classes, as well as the people who are now trying to work from home and can’t because they don’t have internet.”
Legg said while the pandemic has posed significant challenges for all Americans, it has shed new light on the understanding that broadband access “is essential to everything we do.” Due to the increased awareness of its vitality, he expects Congress, the FCC and state governments to work together to further strengthen rural connectivity in the future.
“Rural areas, for the first time, have a real voice in seeing change happen and to see more advanced telecommunications infrastructure,” he said.
“The key, though, is for people to continue to speak up and make their issues known.”
Gov. Ralph Northam announced Jan. 26 more than $29.6 million will be invested toward broadband expansion across 11 Virginia localities to help bridge the digital divide. The Virginia Telecommunication Initiative grant funding will connect more than 11,700 households, businesses and other institutions.