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Get connected: Midwest states show progress in rural connectivity

A map of North Dakota's connected cell sites was part of the presentation by Todd Domres at the Precision Ag Summit on Jan. 22, in Jamestown. Jenny Schlecht / Forum News Service

JAMESTOWN, N.D. — Precision agriculture experts talk about a lot of possibilities for technology in agriculture. Things such as sensors for irrigation and plant health could help farmers keep on top of their crops and stretch their resources.

But in many places, implementing such technologies will take something farmers have no control over — the availability of fixed or mobile broadband connections.

According to a report from the American Broadband Initiative — a federal initiative aimed at improving accessibility of internet connections — more than 92 percent of the U.S. population had access to fixed land-based broadband in 2016. However, of the 8 percent remaining, 80 percent are in rural America.

“This is more people than live in the states of New York or Florida,” the report said.

Midwestern states, however, rank high in their access to internet service. A U.S. News and World Report ranking in January said Iowa and North Dakota were the top two states for internet access, and South Dakota and Minnesota also made the top 10.

Efforts are underway regionally and nationally to improve access for rural areas. But at the Precision Ag Summit in January in Jamestown, representatives from two of the companies that have helped expand access to high-speed internet addressed the main need they see for technology in agriculture: getting service to “the last mile.”

Reaching ‘the last mile’

According to the Pew Institute, broadband adoption grew rapidly from 2000 to 2010, but growth has been more sporadic since then. Institute data says 70 percent of households in suburban communities had broadband access as of Jan. 10, 2018, followed by urban communities at 67 percent. Rural communities lagged, at 58 percent.

In North Dakota, Dakota Carrier Network, made up of independent broadband companies, has invested $100 million per year for more than a decade in putting in infrastructure, said Todd Domres, director of sales and business development for the network. The collaboration of the companies has allowed for broadband expansion in the state in a way that most other places have not seen, he said, explaining that other states have “pockets” of service that North Dakota has almost statewide.

Also heavily invested in expanding services in much of the Upper Midwest is Midco, which serves cities in a five-state, mostly rural area.

“It’s very exciting to have what we have,” said Justin Forde, senior director of government relations at Midco.

Much of the conversation at the Precision Ag conference centered on how having fiber connection at a house doesn’t help much when the technology someone is trying to use is in the far corner of a field.

Domres said North Dakota is “within seeing distance” of having no gaps in coverage. Whether that takes months or years to accomplish will depend on continued investment and emerging technologies.

“I think you’ve got the hard part done,” with existing technology, he said.

Forde said Midco sees “fixed wireless” as part of the solution. Fixed wireless involves beaming coverage through the air, and Forde said that its speed, reliability and affordability make it a viable option. Additionally, he said, it can be deployed even in the dead of winter, at a time when trenches for fiber-optic cable can’t be dug.

Fixed wireless already is available in large portions of the Red River Valley and will be expanding into other parts of the Midco service territory, he said.

Forde said it’s important, also, for customers or potential customers to let companies in their area know about gaps in coverage. The map is changing rapidly, he said, and that information can be vital for a company determining needs.

Government solutions

For many companies, the cost of expanding into rural areas, where there are few paying customers and often many geographic challenges, has played a part in keeping them from expanding. Government assistance remains an important part of the equation.

“Over the past several decades, federal partnerships have been especially important for deployment in high-cost rural areas, where the unique challenges of geography, population density and deployment costs may make it unprofitable to expand or operate networks – creating significant gaps in rural broadband coverage,” the American Broadband Initiative report said.

The report suggests some gains can be made in streamlining processes for permitting, using federal property for expansion of commercial services and making federal funds go farther through better collaboration.

In addition to the recommendations made in the report, other federal efforts are underway. U.S. Sens. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., recently introduced the Office of Rural Broadband Act, which would create an office to coordinate with other federal agencies to maintain information on current rural broadband initiatives and programs and to remove barriers to broadband deployment. Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., have signed on as original co-sponsors.

Hoeven, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committee, announced the Fiscal Year 2019 Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies Appropriation Bill, which Congress approved Feb. 15. It provided $550 million for a rural broadband loan and grant pilot program targeted to areas that lack access to broadband service.

Efforts also are underway in states. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s spending plan includes money to bring broadband access to rural Minnesota in two years. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem announced plans to close the “broadband gap” during her first State of the State Address. In Montana, Senate Bill 239 would exempt property taxes on fiber optics installed by utilities for five years. After that, the tax value would be phased in at 20 percent a year over five years.

Domres said that it’s also important to temper expectations for future connectivity. Much is made of the coming 5G ultra high-speed mobile broadband. However, Domres said that’s something rural American will have to live without. “NFL cities” and larger metro areas might get it, but it won’t come to smaller communities. In North Dakota, he said perhaps Bismarck, Fargo, Grand Forks and “maybe Minot” will get 5G.

In smaller communities and rural areas, “it just won’t happen,” he said.

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