Rural Broadband for Agricultural Sustainability

Nearly 40% of rural Americans lack access to basic rural broadband service compared to a mere 4% of urban Americans.Defined as 25 megabits per second download speeds and 3 megabits per second upload speeds. The impact of this “digital divide” has been made worse by the pandemic, disadvantaging rural communities that may put their lives at risk to work, or see a doctor without telemedicine, and shut down schools or reopen too early without online schooling. While it is widely acknowledged that federal investment in high-speed broadband would lessen these disparities, doing so would have less appreciated but significant economic and environmental benefits for US agriculture.

The lack of reliable broadband connectivity is the primary obstacle preventing more US farms from adopting precision agriculture technologies (PA) — sensors, variable-rate fertilizer and pesticide applicators, and GPS-based yield mapping. With PA technologies, farmers more closely monitor their fields, animals, and weather conditions to more efficiently and effectively apply their inputs, while maximizing crop yields, cutting costs, and increasing revenues, thereby improving the profitability and sustainability of food production. PA helps reduce fertilizer use and related nitrogen losses and, if widely adopted, can cut emissions from fertilizer application and manufacturing by up to 32 MMT CO2e/year.Calculated by applying the emissions reduction potential from Fargione et al. (2018) to 2017 emissions data. These farming techniques allow farmers to reduce chemical application by up to 80%, water usage by 20–50%, and the amount of fuel burned by 40%. Full adoption of precision farming technologies could dramatically increase yields, by 60–70% for corn, for example, and generate $47–$65 billion annually for the US economy if broadband access and adoption of digital agricultural technologies matched producer demand.

The environmental and economic benefits of PA technologies would be greatest for the agricultural industries hit hardest by COVID-19 and the recent economic downturn. The livestock and dairy industry would see $20 billion in gross economic benefits from widespread PA adoption, allowing producers to increase the efficiency of animal care, like tracking disease and hunger with advanced cattle monitoring and optimizing feed formulation to improve nutrition and reduce GHG emissions and manure pollution. Small producers, who currently have the least internet access and are more vulnerable to economic downturns, would benefit from lower labor and machinery costs associated with PA adoption on farms of their size.

Error bars represent ranges when available. Sources: USDA (2019), Goldman Sachs (2016), and Pomar & Remus (2019). Manure pollution refers to the reduction in pig excretion when precision techniques are applied.

Funding rural broadband infrastructure would also provide a much-needed increase in rural economic opportunities. Rural communities with high levelsDefined as county-level broadband adoption rates that are >60%.of broadband access and adoption have higher household incomes and lower unemployment rates on average, than communities with low levelsDefined as county-level broadband adoption that are <40%.of broadband adoption. High speed internet, enabled by fiber optic networks, can attract creative workers, stimulate innovation and entrepreneurship, enable rural businesses to compete in global markets, and lower poverty. In 2015 alone, the rural broadband industry supported nearly 70,000 jobsIncludes both direct jobs in the rural broadband industry and jobs that the industry’s purchases of goods and services generated.and added $24.1 billion to the US economy.

Indigenous communities are at a severe disadvantage with less broadband and cell phone service compared to other rural areas. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced an opportunity for these communities to apply for a limited 2.5 GHz bandwidth. While it is a historic first step, it is still a temporary fix across the digital divide. Less than 1% of federal funding from the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service and the FCC has been awarded to tribal-owned service providers or directly to tribes. Meanwhile, a First Nations-owned company was funded by the Canadian government to bring high-speed broadband to indigenous communities. Access can be improved through direct investments into these communities to build infrastructure, coupled with engagement and oversight from indigenous people.

Current and proposed investments are well-intentioned, but still insufficient. USDA says that $130–$150 billion over five to seven years is needed to support rural coverage and 5G development. However, existing funding falls short of this. The FCC’s recent $20 billion investment to finance high-speed rural broadband over ten years is a welcome and necessary step, despite its critiques. To rapidly improve rural digital access, Congress should commit to providing funding that is several-fold higher than current commitments on a quicker timeline to build fiber broadband infrastructure, and ultimately future-proof the broadband buildout so that it can provide the high speeds necessary for current and future telework, telehealth, and internet needs.