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Precision Ag Among Needs as Federal Funds Flow to High-Speed Fiber Projects

09/22/2022 09:09 AM

By Chris Clayton

OMAHA (DTN) -- Leon Vanden Berge operates a small agronomy consulting business, 4 Ag Tech, in south-central Nebraska where he ideally wants to take a laptop out into a field and help farmers with their precision tools for work such as fertilizer applications. It can require a lot of data, often in the cloud, that requires good internet service to effectively use.

A lot of times in rural areas of Nebraska, Vanden Berge just can't get the data he needs when working with farmers.

"We're a business that is in precision ag, so we're moving data around and presenting it to growers, and sometimes that data is just not carried with us and others," Vanden Berge said in a phone interview with DTN. "We have to reach out to a cloud base. Cell signals, you can hook in your phone and use that, but that is sometimes marginal also out in the country. It's hard for us to present to a grower, let alone do it on a Zoom call with him."

Small high-tech businesses such as Vanden Berge's could see some high-speed boosts as the Biden administration starts rolling out more broadband funding through different avenues. For instance, USDA on Thursday awarded $502 million in grants and loans for 32 different funding recipients in 20 states.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts earlier this month also announced the state expects to receive nearly $200 million from the federal government, including $87.7 million from the Department of Treasury, for expanded broadband to 21,000 homes and businesses. Ricketts told Nebraska media he expects another $107 million from two other federal programs to boost internet services, with much of the money coming from the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed last year.

The multiple announcements coming from different federal agencies show an increased commitment to getting more broadband access in rural America for homes, businesses, schools and farms, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday.

"Many parts of the country today still have limited access in terms of upload and download speeds that simply don't allow for multiple uses at home, don't accommodate distance learning and telemedicine and don't allow businesses to expand market opportunities or would not allow farmers the opportunity of precision agriculture," Vilsack said.

Vilsack noted the money awarded by USDA is separate from $65 billion in funds that were divided among various government programs in the infrastructure bill.

USDA's ReConnect Program works with existing internet providers to upgrade speeds. To get an initial grant or loan, a project must upgrade speeds to 100 megabits per second (Mpbs) download and 20 Mpbs upload. They must also commit to building out their networks to eventually get 100 Mpbs upload speeds as well, Vilsack said. Internet providers must also participate in the Federal Communication Commission program that allows lower-income people to receive internet service at lower costs.

Thursday's ReConnect announcement included $141.5 million in loans and $360.4 million in grants. This is the third round of ReConnect funding so far, totaling $858 million.

While internet within rural communities has improved, reaching the farm has been a bigger challenge. Some of the ReConnect projects funded Thursday specifically detail getting fiber to the farm "premise."

Often, precision-ag consultants will connect into a farmer's office internet, but Vanden Berge said that in a lot of cases, that internet often is not performing any better than a poor cellular signal either.

"There's no question that some of them have pretty decent service depending on where they are located, but for a majority of them, internet going into their house is somewhat limited," Vanden Berge said. "I would say about 80% of them have what I would consider very marginal service."

Producers may have internet good enough to browse the web but not enough for data movement for transferring files to machines. Often, Vanden Berge will have to go someplace else, download the material and return. There are some farmers who have fiber-optic services that have come in, and those farmers can operate online at a much higher level.

Vanden Berge also talked about a Nebraska rancher who bought her property partially because she knew it had the fiber-optic capabilities she needed for her job.

"I am surprised when I see that, and that speed is phenomenal, but I think that's the rare case more than the status quo," Vanden Berge said.

Talking about the ReConnect projects, Vilsack pointed to a few projects, such as one in three western Colorado counties receiving nearly $14 million to expand access to 3,577 people, 148 businesses and 765 farms. Another project in Mississippi will receive $22 million in grant funds

A Mississippi project includes a $22 million grant affecting roughly 9,700 families, 92 businesses and 310 farms in a four-county area.

Another project in Alaska will spend $33 million to connect 211 people and five businesses. While the costs are high, the secretary said, "It's a small number of people, but the reality is, this shows and indicates the commitment" to provide broadband to "every American regardless of how or where they live or how remote their home may be."

Greg Puckett, a county commissioner from Mercer County, West Virginia, and chair of the rural caucus for the National Association of Counties, said broadband "is imperative" to rural communities. Communities without such access are limited in economic development and socio-economic equality, he said.

"Without access to high-speed internet, many of our rural, underserved communities are increasingly isolated and are left behind," Puckett said. He added, "What this does in many ways is help build relationships as well as infrastructure."

USDA's funding announcement comes a week after the House Agriculture Committee held a broadband hearing and committee leaders criticized the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for declining to testify. The lawmakers said the NTIA and FCC showed an "indifference to rural America" and a lack of coordination with USDA.

Vilsack said Wednesday USDA staff holds regular meetings between USDA, FCC and Department of Commerce to coordinate and ensure funding for the ReConnect Program doesn't overlap work coming out of the FCC.

"We're attempting to make sure we have a good, accurate read in terms of where the gaps are in coverage," Vilsack said. "I think we are working collaboratively and closely."

For a list of the ReConnect projects, go to https://www.usda.gov/….

Also see "Fix the Broadband Map" at https://www.dtnpf.com/….

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

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