Ag department honcho says rural communities need faster broadband

by Steve Blum • , , ,

The Forbes Ag Tech Summit opened in Salinas yesterday, for the fourth year in a row. The headline act was editor-in-chief Steve Forbes’ interview with Stephen Censky, the deputy secretary of the federal agriculture department.

Agricultural technology depends on broadband, Censky said, but access is a serious challenge in the rural areas where it will be deployed. Of the 24 million people in the U.S. who don’t have broadband available to them, 80% live in rural areas.

It’s an even bigger problem when service levels are considered. Censky reiterated the agriculture department’s position that the minimum needed – for all rural users, not just tech savvy growers – is 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds.

That level of service is often unavailable in rural communities, and even though the Federal Communications Commission agrees that 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up is the proper “baseline” speed for 2018, it reckons communities with 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up to be “served”. The California legislature sets the bar even lower at 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up.

Figuring out where to find it can be a problem. Censky pointed out that the broadband availability data collected by the Federal Communications Commission comes from the companies themselves, and there’s no easy way to confirm that it’s accurate, or to drill down to see who can and can’t get it.

“There might be a location or two that have broadband, but not whole counties”, Censky said. “For agriculture to succeed in this day and age…you do need reliable access to broadband…for all precision agriculture, you need broadband”.

Censky held out the hope of more federal dollars for broadband infrastructure development, saying there’s $1.4 billion in the agriculture department’s budget for broadband grants and loans. How much of that money is realistically available in California is an open question, though. He had high – and well deserved – praise for rural electric cooperatives, which are taking the lead in broadband deployment in many parts of the U.S. Unfortunately, utility co-ops are rare in California – there are only three.