Shrinking the Rural Digital Divide

by Jeff Walter
June 22, 2020

Rural broadband

Just ten years ago, broadband internet access was a nice to have. It meant we could send emails and browse the internet without lag times. Today, it is an absolute necessity for businesses to operate efficiently and is arguably becoming a necessity for home use as well.

In March of 2020, this became clearer to millions of Americans who were issued stay at home orders as a global pandemic wreaked havoc. Suddenly, that connection to the internet became one of the only ways to stay to connected to work, school, family and friends.

Our family of four was a perfect example, with my wife and I working from home and on video calls most of the day and our two kids online completing Google classroom work, videos and video chats with their classes. Our highspeed connection and headphones tied for the MVP of quarantine, but I couldn’t help but think how a lack of highspeed internet access would affect a large percentage of families who live in rural America.

Disparity Now Impossible to Ignore

I am fortunate to live in a suburb of Chicago, where highspeed access has been a constant for more than a decade. But the latest FCC numbers show that 24 million Americans lack access to broadband, and a whopping 80% of those live in rural America. With more than 7,000 options, the United States  ranks #1 for Internet Service Providers, yet a critically important part of our population and economy has inadequate access.

That means that during this critical time, rural residents struggled to enable e-learning for their children, struggled to stay connected to virtual offices and struggled to access telehealth services.

This came as no surprise to farmers who have been struggling with this issue for more than a decade. As farming has become exponentially technological – with precision agriculture, machine learning, artificial intelligence and predictive modeling for better decision making, rural Internet access  has been largely unchanged. I often marvel at how the American farmer has managed to harness so much technology despite this glaring limitation, and what could be accomplished if their playing field was even. What would Silicon Valley look like if they only had dial-up speeds?

Disruption Brings Positive Change

But there is good news on the horizon.

We’ve all had discussions about how COVID-19 will leave lingering fingerprints on our society, much like the Great Depression did. Corporate real estate may never fully recover with the discovery that remote workstations are more viable than we realized. Even shaking hands may become a custom of the past. However, one very positive outcome is that it looks like rural America may finally get the broadband investment it needs.

In December 2018, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that the USDA would offer $600 million in grants and loans under the ReConnect program for highspeed broadband infrastructure in rural America. The following year, he announced an additional $550 million in support, and the application deadline was extended to mid-April due to the COVID national emergency. While this isn’t going to fully address the situation, it is a big step in the right direction.

Until now, it seemed the government, and the rest of America, was content to let rural residents sit on the sidelines with the hope that eventually some new technology would emerge and magically solve the problem. As we all adjust to this “new normal,” many Americans have come to realize what rural America is missing, and how this inadequacy creates missed opportunities for everyone who benefits from the rural economy. As ag marketers, this lack of high-speed connection affects us in many ways. It limits the channels and types of content we can effectively use to engage with our customers, and often our own workforce. It also limits our customers’ ability to adopt certain technologies and services efficiently and effectively. But the ReConnect program is working to solve these shortcomings. Call your local representatives and make sure they know how important this effort is, and what it means to rural communities and economies.

Jeff Walter
About the Author – Jeff Walter

President/Chief Integration Officer. Jeff combines 20 years of client service experience with his deep knowledge and passion for agriculture, which stems from growing up on a corn and soybean farm in northern Illinois. He is a quick study of the brand, the customers and competitors, knows the right questions to ask, and with his oversight on planning and analytics, pushes the team to category-defining strategies and results-driven plans.

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