Antique tech is good enough for USDA, so it must be fine for everyone else

5 May 2016 by Steve Blum
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We’re upgrading to Pong next year.

All of a sudden, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s – and, consequently, the Federal Communication Commission’s – belief that slow 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds are adequate benchmarks for rural broadband infrastructure development makes sense. Technologically, the USDA is a decade behind everyone else. That’s an entire lifetime in Silicon Valley dog years.

I had signed up for a USDA webinar on the new round of the Community Connect broadband grant program yesterday (which sets an even lower, 4 Mbps download standard). An hour before it began, I received a “friendly note” from one of the coordinators telling me 1. the webinar uses Microsoft’s LiveMeeting platform, 2. it won’t run on a Mac, and 3. I could expect no help from USDA.

Since the only computer operating systems I use are Mac and Linux, the “note” did not strike me as particularly “friendly”.

The latest rev of LiveMeeting is a 2007 release that Microsoft discontinued five years ago, replacing it with a Skype-based platform. In fact, you can use it on a Mac, if you’re willing to install a runtime version of Java and do some command line tinkering via Terminal. That might be a fun project for a rainy weekend, but it’s a waste of time during business hours. And a significant security risk.

The USDA is simply incapable of dealing with technological change. It’s not unique in that regard – federal agencies have a tremendous problem maintaining IT infrastructure, as the continuing stream of major security breaches and iPhone fumbling demonstrate. But ag tech is booming in California, and will change food production forever. If the USDA can’t keep up, its particular clients in the midwest and south will fall even further behind California and the rest of the world.

That’s the general problem. The specific problem is that the USDA unit entrusted with developing telecommunications infrastructure lives in the past, isolated from the technological pressure that’s driving the ever increasing demand for bandwidth in rural communities.