Rural broadband part of discussion at NASDA annual meeting

Ryan Quarrels, president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, led a panel on rural broadband at the group’s recent annual meeting, and he said expanding broadband has been a tier one priority for a number of years.

“Although the bulk of federal funding for broadband does not move through state departments of agriculture, we still have an incredible opportunity to scale up and support this transition right now,” he said.

NASDA’s annual meeting was recently held in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as virtually. On the broadband panel were moderator Kathryn De Wit, Pew Charitable Trusts; Joanne Hovis, president of CTC technology; Joakim Wiklund, chief technology officer from Arable Technologies; and Matt Dunne, founder and executive director of the Center on Rural Innovation.

De Wit directs the Pew broadband access initiative, which examines efforts to connect millions of Americans to high-speed reliable internet. Along with her team, she’s spent the last several years looking at how states were responding to the digital divide.

“We looked at how states were using policy funding and other incentives, and strategies to help get more communities online,” she said. “And what we found was that those state programs were actually quite effective.”

They’re hoping to continue to work with more states with on-going research and also work with federal leaders to make sure they can capitalize on federal policy.

“But I think the most important thing that we can walk away from this—in our field at least—is recognizing nationally that broadband is something that every household in every corner of the country needs access to,” she said. “And not because we need it for Netflix, but because we need it to work, to learn, to stay connected to family and friends, and because, fundamentally, this is what our economy is based on now.”

Support from leaders within NASDA and at federal, state and local levels, along with stakeholders across different industries, say this needs to be a national priority, De Wit said.

Hovis calls herself a broadband analyst.

“Which, in my world, is the greatest job imaginable,” she said.

Hovis has been leading a team of consultants who advise public entities about the expansion of broadband internet.

“I have been analyzing and working on strategy around internet expansion since the early days of the commercial internet when the internet was first commercialized in the early 1990s,” she said. “I will just say that this is a unique and remarkable moment, and I’m really delighted to see that the, the needs of the agricultural community are addressed in ways never before.”

Wiklund has spent his entire career in data communication, starting early on building broadband using fiber and normal landline technology. Recently he’s moved on from the infrastructure to working with applications.

“What am I doing with Arable is developing an ‘Internet of Things’ monitoring solution,” he said. “You know, having sensors in the field combining that with weather forecast data and other information to help farmers basically have better, more useful information for the decision about irrigation, how to use fertilizers, how to do disease control.”

Dunne said the Center for Rural Innovation provides data and mapping work and supports communities that are looking to build fiber to the home. They also help with policy and execution for communities seeking stand up accelerators, digital economy, job training programs and the whole ecosystem that comes with it.

“The most energizing part is when we see rural innovators, whether they’re on the farm, in a manufacturing facility or part of a tech accelerator, have their ideas, unlocked in a real and powerful way,” he said. “And going against the common theme that you can’t have breakthrough innovation happening in rural.”

Wiklund agrees, and is amazed by how much work is being put in to create more sustainable farming practices.

“To be more efficient with water, more efficient with disease control, more efficient with fertilizer,” he said. “It’s great to see all this energy and work and all the innovations that happen in this area.”

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For Hovis, the most energizing part is seeing the degree of collaboration and commitments to developing this digital infrastructure and capabilities that cross into many different groups and layers of government, but also sectorial groups within rural communities and agricultural communities.

“That collaboration is just a key element of actually making progress in this area,” she said.

De Wit asked panelists what the digital divide looks like in their area, and what are three priorities leaders and others should focus on for broadband not only to be available but also as a tool for economic growth and opportunity.

Dunne said economics, demographics of the community, geography, weather and topography all affect the impact of broadband or lack thereof have on communities. He’s seen vast differences in connectivity across the areas he serves. In some parts of rural America, communities just built good speed internet to the homes using a variety of different models.

“There is this wonderful base of examples of communities that just went out and built world class future proof infrastructure,” he said. “And then there are communities who are still dealing with sort of third world level connectivity and there’s not a whole lot in between which is the really painful part.”

Dunne said the message delivered is there’s not enough population in rural areas to actually have good broadband, but that’s just not true.

“It’s not easy. It’s not cheap, but it is absolutely doable, and it’s absolutely necessary,” he said.

For Dunne, the three goals he believes needs to be focused on are: 1) make sure your state policies align to allow for broadband to be built; 2) make sure your communities are resources to be able to do the pre-development work that will allow them to apply for the funding; 3) be a leader in the shifting narrative.

“You can do that too, and just really, really focus in on it, and make sure that when you’re focusing in on it, you’re looking to the last mile,” he said. “So we don’t end up with islands and left out folks at the end of this amazing moment.”

De Wit tasked Hovis with providing a couple examples of rural deployment initiatives and what they actually need to be successful. Hovis mentioned that Wilson, North Carolina, is one of the most connected places on the planet.

“There we have the very clear and committed effort by a community, its elected officials and the members of the public to invest in infrastructure itself,” Hovis said. “That will secure its future, and they have done so very effectively.”

There are many examples of other communities doing the same, but Hovis is also seeing significant hybrids.

“I would say the most common models emerging over the past 10 years and in the current moment are hybrids of a public sector role and a substantial private sector role,” she said. “And this kind of public private collaboration supported, ideally, by state and federal policy but with significant effort at the local level, because local elected officials are the ones who are most motivated, closest to the issue, and most knowledgeable about the needs of their communities.”

Hovis believes that model is one of the most replicable and one that’s best designed to address needs and suit the needs of local communities.

For Wiklund, his “Internet of Things” is really all about gathering information, measuring things—simple tasks like having a parking meter connected to the internet to take credit card payments. For some it’s hard to get past what the technology is and actually apply it to agriculture. It could be used to monitor equipment or livestock, but there are other considerations.

“Although it doesn’t need enormous amount of data, it needs some data coming back to a system that can compile information from memory sensors, do some processing and send information back,” Wiklund said. “That can cause an action.”

One big question about having this kind of technology in ag is how does wireless connectivity get to rural areas?

“With livestock or doing something in the field or monitoring equipment, you need to have wireless network, you can’t have cables to do things,” he said. “So how do we get wireless connectivity out in this community as well? So we can collect the data, do the processing and use this big area of new technology.”

If you look what’s happening in the cellular space right now, Wiklund said new technologies are coming out and being supplied by major carriers. That technology isn’t broadband, and actually very low speed, but they have great coverage and will reach out into the fields.

“These are services specifically made for this type of applications, and I think it’s important to, if you think of rural areas that not only that we get a fiber to the farm that can allow us to do video conferencing or remote studies and other things, but also get these wireless networks in place to enable this kind of services and support that I’m talking about,” he said.

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Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].