Broadband Planning Tools for Rural Farming Communities

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Digital Beat

Broadband Planning Tools for Rural Farming Communities

Broadband Breakthrough helps communities understand their broadband needs, assets, and options.

Adrianne B. Furniss

Recently, the Federal Communications Commission's Task Force for Reviewing the Connectivity and Technology Needs of Precision Agriculture in the United States reported that digital infrastructure is tightly linked to the success of this nation. But, unfortunately, access to this infrastructure is not readily available in rural America.

Many rural communities are being left behind because commercial broadband providers find that rural population density and terrain make broadband network deployment expensive, difficult to recoup
capital costs, and unlikely to get a return on investment for shareholders. Ongoing operating costs and network maintenance also need to be factored into broadband deployment plans.

Agriculture production is poised to enjoy a significant productivity increase with the use of technology and data management, but what is known as “precision agriculture” is constrained by lack of access to high-performance broadband service. Farmers need connectivity in the farmhouse, in the farm office, and in their fields to increase crop yields and quality while more efficiently using inputs like fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation water. And farming communities need broadband to benefit from online applications in health, work, and learning, to spur economic development, and to enhance quality of life. Inadequate broadband limits productivity and growth, and, according to the United Soybean Board’s 2023 strategic plan, it hinders “the ability of farmers to connect to markets, information, and each other.”

All communities need broadband to survive and thrive. The need for broadband in rural farming communities is unique because of the rise of precision, data-driven, agriculture.

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society's Broadband Breakthrough is a community engagement and broadband planning program focused on rural farming communities—because today, broadband is a necessary tool to innovate farming practices and allow for sustainable, targeted, and efficient resource use. The goal of Broadband Breakthrough is to help other rural farming communities understand the value of improved broadband access—and provide the resources, tools, and work required to get better broadband and chart a path for smart farming.

The first Broadband Breakthrough cohort engaged five Illinois counties—Edgar, Hancock, McLean, Ogle, and Schuyler—to plan their broadband futures.

With support from the United Soybean Board, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society gathered a number of invaluable collaborators for Broadband Breakthrough who helped these pilot communities understand their broadband needs, assets, and options:

  • The Illinois Broadband Lab, a collaboration driven by the Illinois Office of Broadband and the University of Illinois System, presented maps of where robust broadband is and is not in these five counties so communities and their chosen internet service providers can focus on where to build reliable networks capable of robust download and upload speeds.
  • University of Illinois Extension helped communities create surveys that asked residents about the quality of their broadband service, including speeds. Illinois Extension analyzed survey results for the communities and educated them on how to use the data.

The program also introduced new open-source resources to communities through two additional research collaborations: 

  • A research team at Illinois State University (ISU), through funding support from the Illinois Innovation Network, provided two open-source tools. This first can help communities quantify the value of high-performance broadband based on its impact on the farming economy. This demonstration of the positive impact robust broadband has on soy and corn production can help farmers and farming communities justify investments and plan and leverage infrastructure to deploy precision agriculture tools. The second tool mapped vertical assets that might be used while deploying broadband networks. Communities were able to match these GIS maps with Illinois Extension survey results.
  • Wireless Research Center report helped communities assess the benefits and challenges of various modes of wireless broadband in a rural setting as a supplement to wired connectivity.

Finally, the Illinois Soybean Association introduced the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society to the ISU researchers, fostered a relationship with the Illinois Farm Bureau, provided convening space and support, and leveraged its network of 43,000 soy farmers for essential communications outreach.

Working with Edgar, Hancock, McLean, Ogle, and Schuyler counties, we learned a number of important lessons.

First, no one will understand the connectivity needs of a community needs better than members of the community themselves. The first step for Broadband Breakthrough communities is to find and engage a team of local leaders committed to focusing on the broadband plan. The team can engage the whole community and work with industry experts to understand the implications of various solutions. For rural communities, that means getting farmers involved. The farm bureau or crop associations are good places to start making connections.

Second, Broadband Breakthrough communities signed up to improve broadband access because they understand that without reliable connectivity, their community goals cannot be met. But that intuitive understanding is not enough; they need to quantify and detail local needs. County teams did this by reviewing state broadband maps, asking community members to provide feedback on their experiences in a community survey, and assessing availability and quality of service through broadband speed tests. Broadband maps are the starting point for a community broadband plan.

Third, most of the Broadband Breakthrough communities came into the process with a vague notion of wanting better broadband. But a community broadband vision is essential. A vision is a short statement that focuses and inspires the local community to work on improving broadband access. The best visions look to the future. They can be vague or specific, depending on the community. The community broadband vision becomes the cornerstone of a communications plan for the community. Encouraging community members to take the surveys and speed tests becomes the call to action.

Fourth, it is through understanding broadband technologies, ownership models, and financing options that communities are empowered to find the right provider partners. Through the Broadband Breakthrough program, communities assess the variety of ways that local governments can be involved, partnership options with internet service providers, and the community’s tolerance for financial risk.

Finally, there's a range of federal, state, and local broadband funding opportunities available these days. Communities must learn how to best position themselves to maximize access to those funds. Those who do not prepare and encourage investment in their communities will be in danger of continuing to watch fiber pass them by and resources go to other communities.

Broadband Breakthrough reportThese lessons and much more about Broadband Breakthrough can be found in Broadband Breakthrough: Infrastructure Planning Tools for Rural Farming Communities, a new report the Benton Institute is releasing today. 

I am also happy to announce that the Illinois Soybean Association is providing funding for a continuation of the Broadband Breakthrough program in Illinois in January 2024. And a national foundation is supporting the Benton Institute to bring Broadband Breakthrough to select counties in the state of Missouri, also early next year.  

The Benton Institute looks forward to engaging additional rural farming counties in this four-month, directed self-help program. Broadband Breakthrough graduating communities and their broadband provider partners—armed with a plan and data to bring better connectivity to meet their communities' vision and goals—will be positioned to change the economics of rural farming community broadband deployment and get their share of unprecedented state and federal funding available to build broadband networks by 2030.   

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
Wilmette, IL 60091
headlines AT benton DOT org

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By Adrianne B. Furniss.