There are aspects of rural life that are uniquely satisfying and variously beneficial to the estimated 60 million Americans who reside rurally today. There are also challenges that come with “living in the country.”
Most of those challenges boil down to matters of convenience. One specific topic, however, is no longer a simple challenge of country living. It has slowly and steadily ascended to become an item of legitimate priority. Whether a high priority item or a frustrating challenge, lack of access to reliable broadband connectivity across rural America is a reality with various impacts on life.
The U.S. government said it recognizes the urgent need for rural internet connectivity. It is also acutely aware of the project scope, logistical considerations as well as the time and sheer effort that constructing a rural broadband infrastructure would require. It has nevertheless committed to a change — for good reason.
The government said it is equally aware of the wide range of benefits and opportunities that rural access to broadband provides directly or indirectly. Unfettered access to internet connectivity may even present unforeseen opportunities. It has become a prerequisite of modern education and effective healthcare. Both are entwined in digital technology. As such, each is increasingly dependent on reliable, high-speed internet service. Today, to say that some aspect of every part of our lives is touched by digital technology is no exaggeration.
The government said it has identified the creation of a rural broadband infrastructure as a high priority initiative.
The USDA, responding in part to its own recent determinations, has already taken the first steps toward not only bringing broadband connectivity to greatly underserved or unserved rural localities, but in the course of doing so, intends to simultaneously develop a solid yet complex foundational broadband infrastructure that will serve as the technological base needed to launch and sustain what is known collectively today as Next Generation Precision Agricultural Technologies.
Internet-based agricultural technologies are not new. A variety of weather and even financial market condition monitoring applications have been in use for some time. With technological advancements today increasing at an exponential rate, it has not taken long for the speed and consistency of many internet service providers, particularly in outlying areas, to fall short of the requirements of the applications technology. Even satellite internet has limitations significant enough to impact market reports or real-time condition updating.
In January of 2018, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue delivered the findings of a broad reaching investigation requested a year prior by President Trump.
The Report to the President of the United States from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity outlined a list of preliminary findings on how to promote and improve agriculture, economic development, infrastructure development, job growth, technological innovation, energy security and quality of life in rural America.
According to the report’s determination from an incalculable number of variables, the single most significant foundational cornerstone common for success in each of the aforementioned areas was the creation of a complete and interconnected rural broadband infrastructure. Soon after the release of the report’s findings, the Trump administration requested the American Broadband Initiative be formed. Congress passed funding for the Initiative as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018.
Moving forward on the Initiative’s developmental planning, and with preapproved budget authority, the USDA appropriated $600 million that had been allotted for expedited use, and together with the Rural Utilities Service developed the Rural e-Connect pilot program, now simply the ReConnect program.
According to an April 2019 USDA report devoted to the Rural Broadband Initiative, the current administration views the ReConnect program as an important and deliberate first step toward the goal of creating a complete and interconnected rural broadband infrastructure. The ReConnect program is designed to source either grant or loan funding, or in some cases, a combination of each according to specific program eligibility criteria, to facilitate the expansion of broadband connectivity throughout rural America.
Contract funding caps of $25 million exist for grant only and loan only categories. The grant and loan combination cap is set at $50 million. The due dates for applications are staggered and determined by the funding source applied for — April 29 for full grant consideration, May 29 for grant/loan options and June 28 for loan only applications.
Notably, in one particular instance in Virginia, several neighboring counties in a significantly underserved or unserved portion of central and south-central region of the state joined together to show a unified support for the bidding member-contractor. The concerted effort effectively reduced complications due to overlapping applications and increased the visibility of a sorely underserved and predominantly rural region of the state.
An overview of the ReConnect pilot program and eligibility requirements is available to the public at www.usda.gov/reconnect/program-overview.
Progress of application review and funding approval for specific areas can be tracked online at http://ruraldevelopment.maps.arc.gis.com.
The USDA Stakes its Claim to e-Connectivity
In April 2019, the USDA released another report: A Case for Rural Broadband; Insights on Rural Broadband Infrastructure and Next Generation Precision Agriculture Technologies.
It is a detailed and focused “next step” for the 2018 report’s findings.
The report’s contents represent the “meat and potatoes” of the USDA’s full stake in the Rural Broadband Initiative: the successful implementation of Next Generation Precision Agricultural Technology as a means of optimizing crop yields and livestock production to meet the food demands of a global population currently estimated at 7.6 billion people. According to United Nation’s 2017 projections, the global population will increase to 9.8 billion by 2050 and reach 11.2 billion by 2100.
Early in the report, the USDA identified NGPAT as an “interdisciplinary science leading to breakthroughs and incremental technology advances to improve agricultural productivity, efficiency and sustainability.” The potentials of digital or internet technology to improve the field of agriculture particularly on the enormous scale that rural broadband infrastructure will eventually support have yet to be discovered.
The USDA’s report indicates that it has no historical data — scientific, financial or otherwise — of adequate scale to reference for drawing conclusions.
The Rural Broadband Initiative and the technological advancements it is intended to support are the first steps into areas of potentially ground-breaking innovation and epic transformation of our food producing capabilities.
With respect to the scientific process, the USDA identified one specific condition to explore and use as the basis for any projections contained in the report.
“The purpose of this work is to explore the intersection of broadband internet infrastructure and the digital Next Generation Precision Agriculture Technologies that will depend on improved e-Connectivity,” the report stated.
According to estimates, the initial $600 million fast-tracked appropriation made by the USDA to launch the ReConnect pilot program is a mere fraction of what it will cost to finish the Rural Broadband Initiative. Totals range somewhere between $130 billion to $150 billion.
While the USDA report offered no definitive conclusions, it did provide an encompassing overview of uses for internet driven applications to assist and improve agricultural productions.
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The USDA’s report, A Case for Rural Broadband, is available for viewing or download as a PDF file at https://www.usda.gov/sites/default/files/documents/case-for-rural-broadband.pdf.