Recommendations for Connecting Rural America

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Digital Beat

Recommendations for Connecting Rural America

Precision Ag report coverOn November 6, 2023, the Task Force for Reviewing the Connectivity and Technology Needs of Precision Agriculture in the United States issued recommendations that advise the federal government on ways it can improve access to reliable, scalable, and low latency broadband access, specifically on rural and agricultural lands. The recommendations fall largely within five primary categories with some additional key considerations: enhancing federal maps on agricultural lands, targeted incentives for a robust technology ecosystem, new technology considerations for agriculture, increasing agency collaborations, and developing specific education and training programs. Additional consideration should also be given to cyber and national security concerns. Below are the recommendations; for more details, see Task Force's full report

Congress established the Task Force in the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (2018 Farm Bill) to provide advice and recommendations to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) on how to assess and advance the deployment of broadband internet access service on unserved and underserved agricultural land and promote Precision Agriculture for both cropping and husbandry.

I. Mapping and Analyzing Connectivity on Agricultural Lands

The agricultural sector is disconnected from the federal broadband mapping effort. The needs and geographic parameters are different from residential broadband serviceable locations but equally important. The following recommendations are intended to address deficiencies with the current broadband data and mapping efforts to ensure that all agricultural lands and use cases, as well as connectivity types are adequately represented in the national broadband mapping framework:

1. The FCC should enhance the Broadband Data Collection (BDC) map to improve the map’s usability for precision agriculture:

  • The current BDC map should include alternative lookup descriptors in addition to the ability to look up a location based on service address. The group suggests including alternative lookup locations such as to help producers find their location of interest more effectively.
  • Extend existing wireless coverage hexagon sizes used in the FCC map. The current zoom level is a good starting point for expressing coverage at higher zoom levels. In areas of greater data density, support a more granular zoom level presenting coverage layers in smaller hexagon sizes down to ~100 meters across, is needed to better identify coverage across specific locations including fabric locations and acreage.
  • Add agricultural structures (example, irrigation systems, grain bins, barns, water tanks, sheds, shops) to the BDC map.

2. The FCC should include a verification data layer(s) into the existing BDC interface showing where the existence and performance of connectivity has been independently verified, augmenting the existing data layers that show where connectivity is expected. Third-party data sources to be included in this verification layer should adhere to a standard set of required key performance indicators (KPIs) interface.

3. The FCC, in partnership with USDA, should adopt a framework to determine and map unserved, also called negative space, and underserved agricultural lands and develop a visualization platform hosted by NASS to display the connectivity map over a base layer of cropland and pastureland data, with necessary funding, to support the broadband mapping needs of the agricultural community.

4. The USDA shall be directed to establish an inter-agency coordinating council focused on broadband connectivity data collection, verification, and mapping analysis of broadband coverage on agricultural lands as well as native farmlands to address the broadband connectivity challenges facing these communities and their stakeholders. The Council will include the USDA as well as the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the U.S. Census Bureau, and the FCC. The Council should also consult with the National Association of Counties (NACo) and other state (for example, state departments of agriculture, state broadband offices, and county officials), local and tribal governmental organizations to develop a comprehensive strategy towards mapping and expanding broadband access on agricultural lands. The Council will meet quarterly and provide a bi-annual report on its work to the House and Senate Agriculture appropriations and authorizing committees. Such reports will be provided until the next Farm Bill reauthorization in 2028.

5. Adopt connectivity use case-driven standards for data & mapping purposes. Agriculture operations are primarily mobile endeavors and the current BDC focuses on locations as opposed to mobile geographical areas.

II. Examining Current and Future Connectivity Demand

Precision Agriculture is the utilization of technology and data for generating insights that enhance decision-making in real-time and automate farming practices. It plays a pivotal role in enhancing agricultural productivity, efficiency, and sustainability. Benefits include reducing inputs, increasing production, and minimizing environmental impacts.

Additionally, precision agriculture has the potential to contribute significantly to climate change mitigation efforts. The goal of the recommendations below is to help chart a path to achieving these benefits through government policy and incentives and by broadening funding opportunities to encourage farmers to build private networks on working lands to meet the current and future needs for connectivity:

1. Prioritize deployment of wired, wireless, and satellite infrastructure in agricultural lands to achieve broadband connectivity to the last acre. Broadband connectivity has become a fundamental cornerstone of modern agriculture, driving efficiency, productivity, and sustainability. To ensure every farmer can harness the full power of digital tools and technologies, it’s vital to prioritize the deployment of diverse communication infrastructures across agricultural lands. By incorporating a mix of wired, wireless, and satellite systems, we can create a robust and redundant network that caters to the unique topographical and logistical challenges presented by expansive farming regions. The “last acre” in this context isn’t just a geographical point but represents the commitment to ensure that even the remotest and most isolated agricultural operations are not left behind in the digital revolution. Providing them with seamless broadband connectivity ensures that they benefit from real-time data, advanced analytics, and remote support, leveling the playing field and allowing every farmer to make informed and timely decisions for their crops and livestock.

2. Farmers should be encouraged to band together to create private, on-farm networks as a self-sufficient solution to achieve last-acre connectivity. Last acre focus can only increase with government policy and funding. The analogy is the success and importance of electrical cooperatives in the 1930s. Similar farmer alliances could build and deliver bespoke, carrier-grade, high-speed wireless networks for the farmer members to help drive the adoption of precision agriculture applications. 

3. Strong connectivity is foundational to the future of agriculture in the United States. The Task Force commends the FCC for recognizing the need to elevate current standards from 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload to 100 Mbps download/20 Mbps upload as seen in the latest FCC standards. However, as technology continues to advance, it is pivotal to incentivize innovation and increase the standards to meet future needs on a regular basis. In agriculture, download speeds are for “consumption,” upload speeds are for “production.” Therefore, the Task Force recommends the following:

  • Significantly raise the standard on upload capacity over time to anticipate the needs of precision agriculture.
  • Double or even triple the current standard for upload and download speeds to meet the needs of future technology such as autonomous tractors.
  • In the next term, the Working Group should review a potential timeline for new standards based on research, examples, and testing to determine practical speeds.

4. Establish a national spectrum policy that makes available ample spectrum for agricultural use and that also helps lower costs by offering bidding credit for agriculture at spectrum auctions.

5. Amend the Reconnect Program (currently geared for households) to incentivize applications that benefit precision agriculture farm infrastructure. Private networks may be the best (though high-cost) solution and must be part of the funding equation.

6. Improve Rural Utility Service (RUS) grants and loans for tower construction. Funding access to dark fiber could be an additional boon.

7. Consider the unique challenges of geography, profitability, operator aptitude, crop variety, labor, equipment, and support when implementing technology solutions. One size does not fit all. The complexity of the agricultural sector is often underappreciated, with numerous variables at play that can affect the successful integration of technology. Each agricultural operation, whether a sprawling commercial farm or a small family-owned plot, faces its unique set of challenges shaped by the geography of the land, from the inclines of terraced fields to the moisture levels of different soil types. Profitability also varies widely based on factors like market demand, crop yield, and external pressures like climate change. Furthermore, the aptitude of the operator, often influenced by generational practices and exposure to technology, can determine how swiftly and effectively new solutions are adopted. The diversity in crop varieties demands tailored technological approaches, as the needs of a vineyard vastly differ from those of a grain farm. Labor availability, the type and age of equipment in use, and the support infrastructure, both in terms of technology service providers and local knowledge bases, further add layers of considerations. This mosaic of variables underlines the fundamental truth: when it comes to agricultural technology solutions, a one-size-fits-all approach is not only ineffective but could also be detrimental. Tailored solutions that respect and respond to these nuances are imperative for the holistic progress of the sector.

8. Ensure seamless connectivity for precision agriculture by addressing cellular network limitations, roaming agreements, and antenna power level regulations.

9. Embrace emerging artificial intelligence (AI) techniques for multifactor analysis in agriculture and invest in training for accurate AI usage. Precision agriculture, with its reliance on real-time data and constant feedback loops, stands at the forefront of modern farming, promising optimized yields and resource management. However, the true potential of precision agriculture can only be unleashed when there’s uninterrupted connectivity. Cellular network limitations, often seen in the form of patchy coverages or signal drops, can significantly impede the efficient functioning of tech-driven farming tools. Roaming agreements further compound the problem; when a machine transitions between carrier zones, a lapse in data transmission can occur, disrupting operations. Additionally, stringent regulations surrounding antenna power levels can sometimes curtail the effective range and reliability of signals. Addressing these challenges is paramount. By fortifying cellular networks, enhancing interoperability through robust roaming agreements, and revisiting antenna power regulations, we can lay the groundwork for a digital agricultural revolution. Such efforts will not only drive productivity but also ensure that farmers, irrespective of their operation’s scale or location, have the tools to make data-driven decisions, fostering a sustainable and prosperous future for agriculture.

10.  Leverage edge computing technology and private 5G systems to extend cloud capabilities to remote farm locations. The fusion of edge compute technology and private 5G systems heralds a transformative era for modern agriculture. Farms, especially those located in remote areas, have historically grappled with challenges of connectivity and data processing. Edge compute technology addresses this by allowing data to be processed closer to where it’s generated—right on the farm itself. This means real-time insights without the need for long round trips to central data centers, which can be especially valuable when immediate action is required based on the data received. Complementing this, private 5G systems offer high-speed, reliable, and low-latency communication, enhancing the ability of farms to handle massive data streams from IoT devices, sensors, and automated machinery. By melding these technologies, cloud capabilities, previously a distant luxury for many remote farms, can now be brought right to their doorstep. This localized approach not only boosts operational efficiency but also empowers farmers with the digital prowess to optimize resources, monitor conditions meticulously, and make informed decisions, all in real time, paving the way for a more resilient and productive agricultural future.

11. Incentivize private cellular networks to meet high-speed connectivity requirements in agriculture, potentially using legislative vehicles like the Farm Bill. The burgeoning need for high-speed connectivity in the agricultural sector is unmistakable. As farming practices continue to embrace the digital age, the demand for seamless and robust connectivity grows. Private cellular networks can play a pivotal role in meeting this demand, offering tailored solutions that cater specifically to the unique challenges and requirements of agriculture. However, for these networks to flourish and serve the agrarian community effectively, there must be significant incentives. Herein lies the potential of legislative tools like the Farm Bill. By integrating provisions that promote and financially support the establishment and expansion of private cellular networks, the Farm Bill could act as a catalyst, spurring technological advancements in the field. Such a move would not only ensure that farmers have access to the digital tools they require but also foster an environment of innovation and competition among service providers. This, in turn, could lead to advancements in connectivity solutions, driving down costs, improving reliability, and ensuring that the digital revolution in agriculture leaves no farmer behind.

12. There are a number of policies that federal and state agencies can pursue to improve cellular connectivity.

  • Require cellular companies to guarantee minimum download and upload speeds as part of the monthly contracted services purchased by consumers.
  • Expand the mandate to provide service to everyone in a stated coverage area beyond cooperatives to national and regional carriers.
  • Design policy for a farmer/rancher to seamlessly access multiple carriers or merge with satellite coverage – essential for maximizing efficiency and productivity in the fields.
  • Incentivize modem and equipment development and articulation to capitalize on future dedicated ag spectrum. e. Ensure existing federal funds for infrastructure development and broadband can be used by states to create programs that help meet local needs. Ex. Cell Towers Grant program for local providers; restoring service where spectrum was sold to nationwide carriers who no longer provide reliable service.
  • FCC continue developing and promoting consumer apps to ground truth provider service. Continue following up on speed test and connectivity challenges from cellular devices and from other connected devices.

III. Accelerating Broadband Deployment on Unserved Agricultural Lands

The addition of the tens of billions of dollars being made available to increase broadband connectivity across the country is commendable; however, there is still concern whether this funding will reach the unserved lands that need it most, such as agricultural lands. Therefore, the following recommendations should be considered:

1. All U.S. federal agencies should use the same broadband definition and standards for funding decisions, and these definitions and standards should be updated on a bi-annual basis. A continuing major concern is that there is no single definition of broadband as our federal partners make broadband decisions (this gets even worse if one looks at the states and localities). To ensure that all agricultural lands have access to a baseline of broadband services, it is critical that federal agencies use the same threshold for establishing what, is the definition of “broadband service” and align all government support mechanisms and incentives.

2. Grant applications that include wide-area coverage to agricultural acreage, including the farm office or house, should be prioritized. Adding this criterion will ensure there is a robust broadband last mile network as well as wide area coverage to reach last acre agriculture lands, which require both wireline and wireless technologies.

3. The FCC, NTIA and USDA should require the use of interoperability standards as part of the funding process for precision agriculture and encourage the use of such standards through outreach, etc. As part of the funding process, the aforementioned agencies should require service providers receiving grants to utilize network equipment and devices that are compliant with industry-led interoperability standards, as seen with the evolution of the connected home and smart/connected devices.

4. The FCC and USDA should support rural broadband networks by including incentives for connectivity to rural agricultural land headquarters. The $42.5 billion NTIA’s Broadband Equity and Access Deployment (BEAD) funding is an unprecedented amount for the build-out of broadband networks. We recommend an additional incentive for applicants who can and will build out broadband networks to reach rural farm and ranch headquarters. Similarly, USDA can and should implement this criterion in selecting future ReConnect funding opportunities.

5. The FCC should make available dedicated terrestrial spectrum for precision agriculture at a low cost. The exclusive availability of spectrum will ensure that licensed spectrum is available in last-acre Private Wireless Networks, and having a low-cost provision will help ensure that the licensed spectrum costs can be managed by the FCC. This will also help with the establishment and manufacture of specific equipment and systems tied to specific spectrum metrics.

6. The USDA should provide funding for build-out and operation of last-acre networks to ensure the capability to use precision agriculture systems and devices. Any last-acre network option will be expensive, and this cost will be an obstacle for small and mid-sized farm and ranch operations across the country. USDA has a long history of providing support to build last-mile telecom and broadband networks. These networks could be cost-prohibitive for many farming and ranching operations. Establishing a funding mechanism for last-acre networks for the individual farmer should include:

  • Grant funding opportunities through local FSA or NRCS offices.
  • Grant funding opportunities through qualified AG COOPS (qualified means those coops are willing and capable of administering grants).
  • Providing flexibility for whichever option suits a particular farming community that USDA is trying to serve.

7. The FCC should continue to make incentives available to encourage precision agriculture deployment. In its Enhanced Competition docket, the FCC began to address ways to incentivize the use of spectrum on tribal and other unserved lands. However, as previously noted, there may be fewer spectrum auction opportunities in the future. It is too early to understand how a reduced number of auctions will impact deployment. However, we urge the FCC to continue to explore and examine methods in which to incentivize further the use of spectrum to support unserved agricultural lands for all technologies. For example, the FCC should consider the use of bidding credits or other financial benefits for service providers who, as part of their auction bids, commit to the deployment of broadband to unserved agricultural lands within a set time period.

8. The FCC should revisit its broadband satellite service coverage requirements for NGSO (Non-Geostationary Orbit)  satellite systems to the extent technically feasible. The FCC, in a recent docket, eliminated the requirement for country-wide coverage by NGSO broadband satellite systems. This means the broadband satellite systems that should be able to support the broadband needs of the most rural portions of the country, are no longer required to do so. The FCC should revisit this decision in light of the agricultural community’s need to have access to competitive broadband services while balancing the technical requirements of the system.

9. The FCC should implement geographic build-out requirements for spectrum-based licenses, and the FCC, USDA, and NTIA should use this metric for funding to ensure the coverage of unserved agricultural lands on a timely basis. Today, the FCC uses population-based metrics for its build-out milestones for terrestrial wireless networks. However, these metrics have largely failed to result in the build-out of wireless networks to the most rural portions of the country. Accordingly, the FCC should implement geographic build-out requirements, rather than population-based requirements, tied to spectrum auctions with shorter build-out timelines. Funding guidelines for 5G broadband should require area-based coverage that includes verified device population, geographical, and usage data. Spectrum auctions should include a shorter and more aggressive build-out timeline as a positive consideration in winning bids.

10. The FCC should strengthen policies that require auction bidders to show the long-term sustainability and scalability of their proposed networks, recognizing the need to raise the bar significantly on upload and download speeds. All deployments of networks and the use of spectrum should be able to adapt to growing demands of the consumer. Precision agriculture needs will evolve and require networks to evolve to allow for the improved services offered by new technology.

11. The FCC and USDA should work with stakeholders to build a playbook for creating and operating rural community-based, nonprofit solutions (modeled after the NTIA playbook). An important key to the success of these types of solutions is for the entities involved to leverage the expertise of local, independent, existing operators to build these community-based high-speed networks. By providing direction, the FCC and USDA can establish guidelines that help public-private partnerships that are most likely necessary to accomplish successful builds in areas currently unserved by a local service provider.

12. The FCC, working with States and localities, should address zoning issues to ease regulatory and administrative burdens associated with deploying broadband networks, such as laying cable, setting towers, or establishing satellite base stations. The federal government should work with state governments and localities to ease permitting, zoning, and other administrative burdens.

13. In tribal areas, states and localities should work with tribal authorities and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to help speed deployment. To streamline the deployment of precision agriculture to tribal areas, it is important that the states work to avoid imposing duplicate or heavy burdens on the deployment of broadband to farms and ranches. 

IV. Encouraging Adoption and Availability of High-Quality Jobs

The United States agriculture industry faces a generational imperative to continue as a keystone on the national and international stage. Farmers are at the front lines of implementing solutions to address climate concerns and contribute to geopolitical stability through the reduction of food insecurity that can prompt demographic uncertainties around the world. The continuing strength of the U.S. agriculture sector will be guided by sound public policy that encourages greater adoption of agriculture technology, as well as robust security and data privacy standards to secure one of the Nation’s most vital industrial sectors. Meaningful funding and effort must be invested towards increasing on-farm connectivity, climate-smart agriculture, and sustainable productivity, improving collaboration, research and innovation, assuring long-term continuity of U.S. agriculture systems, solidifying cyber-security, and data-privacy requirements, and assuring multi-scale adaptability.

1. The USDA and FCC should consider precision agriculture connectivity as a critical component of our Nation’s food and homeland security.

2. USDA ReConnect should pivot to prioritizing on-farm connectivity as exemplified by Senate bill S.2542 (LAST ACRE Act of 2023) and companion House bill H.R.6142 (to amend the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 to establish a last acre program, and for other purposes). 3. The USDA should focus eligibility and awards on climate-smart outcomes rather than specific practices or solutions.

4. The USDA should increase funding available to producers through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

5. The USDA conservation programs should incentivize practices that have multiple environmental benefits (for example to improve water use efficiency may also improve water quality due to less runoff; optimally using nitrogen reduces life-cycle energy for crop production and can improve water quality).

6. The USDA should allow all new smart irrigation systems to be funded under EQIP (currently, only systems that have been deployed for two years apply are eligible for upgrades).

7. The USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA) should include in crop insurance “Precision Ag Premium Reduction.” When farmers utilize precision agriculture equipment and data management, they lower their operational risk profile through automation in each cropping year and establish crop records that create sustainable long-term value of historical practice. Reductions in premiums to reflect those lower risks would encourage farmers to adopt precision agriculture technologies that often also conserve natural resources.

8. Crop Insurance, generally, should reflect the influence of improved accuracy of field size and climate/ conservation practices on actual production history (APH) needs careful consideration – particularly during transition years. The use of actual “as planted” maps can both reduce premiums and improve accuracy with improved measurement and reporting of active farmable area.

9. The USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) “Precision Ag Loan Guarantee” should work with traditional farm lenders and with their own lending arm to guarantee loans for producers to purchase direct cost and labor-reducing precision agriculture equipment and services, recognizing them as Best Management Practices (BMPs).

10. Using less energy through improved efficiency via better lighting, insulation, equipment maintenance, etc. should be rewarded similarly to the generation of renewable energy. The agricultural landscape offers opportunities to generate renewable energy via digester, solar, wind, and geothermal systems and these can improve the economic resilience of farms.

11. USDA programs should empower farmers to use the hardware and software systems that improve machinery efficiencies or reduce passes over the field.

12. The USDA should continue the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) program to enhance collaboration between universities, stakeholders, and public/private partnerships. Greater clarity regarding the use of the funds toward enabling technology could lead more to adoption as would lightening the match requirement.

13. Conservation Payment – The USDA FSA ‘Precision Ag Environment Payment’, NRCS ‘Environmental Quality Incentives Program’ (EQIP), and Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). As highlighted throughout the 2018 Farm Bill, precision agriculture and precision agriculture technologies are recognized as critical to conservation, production and profitability. Therefore, precision agriculture technologies and practices should be recognized as Best Management Practices and direct payments for its utilization should be established.

14. USDA should consider a voluntary program such as established in the Growing Climate Solutions Act that includes carbon credits, nitrogen optimization, and water use efficiency. 

15. USDA or other relevant Federal agencies should dedicate increased funding to promote the adoption of cover crops, reduced tillage, and other practices that promote soil organic matter that brings many benefits in the utilization of all nutrients.

16. The USDA should lead increased marketing and education programs across agencies to promote the value of precision agriculture technologies and agriculture benefits to the United States.

17. The NRCS should consider nationwide on-staff technologists and precision agriculture specialists.

18. USDA operating loans should be increased as a means to allow for ag tech adoption to mitigate operational risk and prepare for climate adaptability tools.

19. USDA should implement department and agency-wide interoperability and symmetry of internal program formats to utilize operator-driven data for future operator mandatory reporting, farm program creation, and cohesive agency interaction of the data.

20. The state broadband coordinator, supported by NTIA, should partner with the land grant university system, extension service, non-land grant regional colleges, and community colleges to develop digital literacy training to support the adoption of precision ag tools.

21. In partnership with DoD/DHS/NSF, the USDA should establish a biosecurity/cybersecurity research and innovation facility through the Land Grant University System.

22. USDA study on technology adoption benefits to productivity/profitability to ensure food and water security.

23. Land Grant University Extension Systems must be fully funded, and hiring qualifications must prioritize technology know-how and on-farm adoption assistance.

24. It increased national collaboration between USDA NRCS and the Land Grant University System concerning as-applied research, technology use, and training.

25. CTE and community college precision agriculture curricula should be developed to support a system of systems approach. A developmental framework should be created with state NRCS offices, land grant universities/extensions, and local economic development agencies/county commissioners.

26. All systems need to contain the architectural element of a layered security strategy, as a means of defensible architecture.

27. Due to the sensitive nature of farm record data and the potential for vulnerability, all systems should have the requirement of multi-factor authentication.

28. Industry should adopt NIST800-53 presented herein.

29. States should adopt a guideline similar to Nebraska LB63, withholding state USF funding from any telco using equipment on the FCC covered list.

30. Agricultural data privacy standards should be considered a matter of homeland security and as such, should be prioritized by state and federal agencies.

31. National focus supported by agricultural associations, land grant universities, industry, and USDA should be placed on data privacy awareness, education and outreach.

32. Data privacy standards should include but not be limited to the following:

  • Producer-owned (customer generated data) and producer-controlled data is a requirement.
  • Data must be retrieved in its original form, without manipulation, in near real-time.
  • Right to access and delete personal or farm record data
  • Right to opt out of sale or further use of data.
  • Aggregate statistics utilizing producer-generated data must not be shared or sold to third parties without written consent.
  • All rights, titles and interests are owned by the producer/customer and may not be replicated, sold or manipulated.

33. The FCC, NTIA and USDA should include consistent reporting metrics and surveys to identify broadband deployment and precision agriculture adoption.

34. USDA should leverage a consistent survey across departments regarding broadband use, affordability metrics, and precision agriculture use.

35. Data should be made public on the National Broadband Map and the Deployment Locations Map created in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, (excerpt from LAST ACRE Act).

36. Congress should adopt Precision Ag Loan Act S.719 authorizing a department of USDA to administer low-interest loans to producers and ranchers interested in precision agriculture.

From Task Force for Reviewing the Connectivity and Technology Needs of Precision Agriculture in the United States published November 6, 2023

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