Bridging the ‘digital divide’

The Federal Communications Commission is investing in more and better internet connectivity across the rural U.S.

From self-driving tractors to irrigation pivots controlled by smartphones, modern farming relies on technology to grow more crops with less water, fuel and fertilizer.

Precision agriculture, in turn, requires access to high-speed broadband internet, but according to the Federal Communications Commission approximately 19.4 million mostly rural Americans still lack connectivity — what is known as the “digital divide.”

The FCC has authorized $4.9 billion over the next 10 years to continue bridging that digital divide, with funding for smaller rural carriers to maintain, improve and expand affordable broadband in 455,334 homes and businesses across 39 states and American Samoa.

Oregon will receive $67.6 million to strengthen rural broadband at 4,689 locations; Idaho will receive $49.9 million for 4,914 locations; and Washington will receive $13.9 million for 2,037 locations.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai visited Eastern Oregon in 2018 with U.S. Rep. Greg Walden to discuss internet access in rural Umatilla County. Pai and Walden met with local officials and business leaders in Pendleton, Hermiston and Weston who talked about the challenges of having slow and inconsistent internet in the 21st century economy.

According to the latest FCC Broadband Deployment Report, communities are making progress in closing the digital divide, which Pai described as the commission’s top priority. The report shows the number of Americans without broadband access dropped from 26.1 million in 2016 to 19.4 million at the end of 2017.

The minimum benchmark for broadband internet is defined in terms of downloading and uploading speeds. The FCC standard is 25 megabits per second downstream — such as downloading files, receiving emails or simply visiting different web pages — and 3 megabits per second upstream, such as uploading files or sending emails.

Earlier this year, rural internet carriers agreed to accept subsidies from the FCC based on a model intended to keep their rates reasonable in areas where the cost of installing broadband is high.

In return, carriers must provide at least 25 Mbps upstream and 3 Mbps downstream to more than 363,000 locations, plus 37,000 locations on tribal lands.

In a statement released Aug. 22, Pai said the move is a win-win for rural Americans and taxpayers.

“Carriers get the predictable support they need to deliver broadband to their customers in these high-cost rural areas. And taxpayers, who fund this support through a fee on their phone bills, are getting more bang for their buck,” Pai said.

The first due date for carriers to improve and expand service is 2022.

Walden, Oregon’s only Republican congressman, said he is grateful the FCC recognizes the need to expand rural broadband in his largely rural district.

“There are still too many Oregonians who lack access to reliable broadband internet service and thus access to things like telemedicine, remote learning, next generation emergency services and video streaming because of insufficient internet service,” Walden said.

Joe Franell, CEO of Hermiston-based Eastern Oregon Telecom, said he supports any effort to close the digital divide but does not believe the latest investment moves the bar far enough, or fast enough.

“This is not necessarily new coverage,” Franell said. “This could be upgrades to existing networks. In fact, we may be spending over $60 million in Oregon and not bring broadband to a single new customer.”

Franell also worries that, in 10 years, the FCC minimum broadband speeds of 25 Mbps upstream and 3 Mbps downstream will no longer be adequate for rural Oregonians.

Eastern Oregon Telecom is currently building fiber optic cable to homes across three rural cities, including Adams, Athena and Weston, with a combined population of 2,136. Franell said the speeds will offer 100 Mbps both upload and download speed.

Compared to 25 Mbps upstream and 3 Mbps downstream, “That’s like going from a Volkswagen to a Lamborghini,” Franell said.

High-speed broadband is especially critical for Umatilla County farmers, Franell said, who are continuing to adopt new precision irrigation tools. The average size of farms in the county is roughly 784 acres.

“Farmers today are very sophisticated in what they do,” Franell said. “Especially here in Eastern Oregon, we’re world leaders in precision agriculture and precision irrigation. We’re getting higher crop yields with less water than just about anywhere in the world, and we’re doing that with technology.”

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