The coronavirus pandemic has highlight the need for broadband access in rural areas, experts say.

A silver lining to the cloud of the coronavirus pandemic is that it’s highlighted the importance of high-speed internet in rural areas, experts say.

With people working from home and children learning remotely, it’s become clear that access to broadband is an economic necessity, according to speakers at the American Farm Bureau’s virtual convention.

“A bright spotlight has been shown on this issue. Rural areas for the first time have a voice in seeing real change happening,” said Brent Legg, executive vice president of government affairs for Connected Nation, a nonprofit that advocates broadband expansion.

Broadband is necessary as a business and educational tool, but the lack of access in rural areas also impedes the agriculture industry’s ability to adopt productivity-enhancing technology, experts said.

“It’s become more than a I-can’t-play-my-games-or-stream-my-movies issue,” said Lorenda Overman, a North Carolina farmer who moderated a Jan. 12 panel on the subject.

Precision agriculture is intended to maximize yield and profits while letting growers use their time more efficiently, but it’s often dependent on high-speed internet, said Jackie Mundt, a Kansas farmer.

Remote sensors and cameras could allow her significant other to check cattle or irrigation equipment from afar, but he considers them unreliable, Mundt said. “We can’t trust the technology so he’s taking the time to drive across the farm.”

Most recently, broader federal spending legislation for 2021 included $7 billion in emergency broadband funding to help people pay for the service, replace network equipment, improve availability maps and otherwise enhance connections.

“We used to think it’s a luxury, but it’s a necessity now,” said Zippy Duvall, the Farm Bureau’s president. “It’s just as important as the movement to bring electricity.”

With Congress actively pursuing expanded broadband access, it must also ensure that federal agencies work together to avoid conflicts, said Michael Romano, senior vice president at the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association.

These “cooks in the kitchen” include the USDA, Federal Communications Commission and National Telecommunications and Information Administration, he said.

It will also be crucial that internet service providers who receive federal money are held accountable regarding the speed and functionality of broadband connections, Romano said.

“People have over-promised and under-delivered,” he said.

For example, an internet provider may report a high connection speed when access is actually spotty due to an “over-subscription” of users along the fiber-optic cable, said Legg, of Connected Nation.

Rural residents will play an important role in ensuring that broadband connections work properly and in upgrading government maps to reflect the actual state of high-speed internet access, he said. Such maps are expected to be crucial in filling coverage gaps.

“The more data the FCC receives from the public, the more accurate the maps will be,” Legg said. “We do not want to see rural communities die. We want to stem the outward migration from rural areas.”

Since the hardware responsible for broadband access is expected to last years or decades, it’s critical for communities to plan ahead for growth, Romano said. Similarly, it’s unwise to construct a two-lane road when a four-lane road will soon be needed.

“I want a network that will continue to be there for the length of my business,” he said.

As a general principle, rural residents who want to ensure sufficient high-speed internet access need to be a “squeaky wheel” to get the attention of regulators and service providers, Mundt said.

“We can’t wait for someone to do this for us, we have to raise our hands and make this happen,” she said. “Don’t wait for it to come to you. Go out and get together with your neighbors.”

I've been working at Capital Press since 2006 and I primarily cover legislative, regulatory and legal issues.

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