Broadband connectivity boosts agricultural productivity
January 28, 2019
This article appeared first in April 2018 on the website of the Global Harvest Initiative, the previous host institution for the GAP Report.
Agriculture is increasingly a global high-tech business.
In order to compete effectively, farmers and ranchers need reliable mobile and fixed broadband connectivity to maximize their efficiency, control costs, promote soil health, prevent grazing land degradation and conserve natural resources.
Increasing the use of precision agriculture technologies and data analytics will boost productivity growth and help ensure the U.S. can sustainably produce food, feed, fiber and biofuel for domestic consumers and millions around the world.
The precision revolution
Precision agriculture systems, combined with data analytics, enable farmers to track and improve the productivity of their operations.
Data gathered from in-field sensors is combined with satellite or aerial imagery to generate field maps, assess crop health, identify areas for conservation and develop planting and harvesting plans.
Farmers use this information to direct GPS-enabled tractors to plant and fertilize every inch of the field and avoid even the slightest overlap. This saves time, decreases the amount spent on seeds, inputs and fuel and reduces wear on the equipment.
Livestock producers and ranchers use data collected from their herds to monitor animal health, track food and water consumption and manage grazing lands for sustainability. This reduces energy costs, saves labor, protects animals from predators and disease and reduces land degradation.
Connectivity for productivity
To maximize the productive capacity of these technologies, producers need access to high-speed reliable broadband services, not only in their homes and barns, but also in their fields and grazing land.
However, much of the cropland and ranchland in the U.S. is not connected to fixed or mobile telecommunications services.
Mr. Darrington Seward, a cotton and corn farmer in Louise, Mississippi, describes how a lack of broadband connectivity would prevent him from maximizing the productive potential of his farm.
“Our main goal in precision agriculture is to farm as many acres as we can, minimizing resources and inputs, while simultaneously increasing our yields…Without the availability of reliable and fast broadband, our production practices and efficiencies…would be completely compromised. We would suffer yield losses and decreased productivity that would greatly affect our profitability.” 
Broadband parity for agriculture
Dozens of rural broadband bills are circulating through Congressional committees.
The 2018 Omnibus Budget allocated $600 million for a broadband pilot grant/loan program to encourage communications companies and cooperatives to extend the broadband infrastructure and provide internet service to rural homes, schools and hospitals.
The Agricultural Broadband Coalition (ABC), a diverse group of farmer associations, equipment manufactures and technology companies, argues that rural broadband initiatives must address the unique connectivity needs of U.S. farmers and ranchers.
“The promise of precision agriculture and data cannot be realized without broadband coverage,” says John Rauber, Director of Washington Affairs for John Deere, a member of the Agricultural Broadband Coalition. “That is why the ABC is advocating for mobile broadband services, as well as fiber networks, to cover all U.S. cropland and ranchland by 2025.”
Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act
The ABC has endorsed the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act of 2018, a bi-partisan bill introduced in the Senate by Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and in the House by Bob Latta (R-Ohio) and Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa).
The bill creates the Task Force for Meeting the Connectivity and Technology Needs of Precision Agriculture in the United States. The task force will bring together public and private stakeholders to evaluate current programs affecting broadband internet access on cropland and ranchland and develop specific steps the FCC, USDA and other federal agencies can take to address gaps in coverage.
Among the tasks force’s most critical activities will be to map the existing gaps in cropland and ranchland coverage. Given the size of the territory lacking connectivity, the ABC is recommending that public-sector investments in agricultural areas prioritize increasing mobile broadband coverage rather than connection speed. A 3G connection is sufficient for most precision agriculture and data gathering technologies.
Endnotes: Statement Of Darrington Seward, Seward & Son Planting Company Of Louise, Mississippi, Before The Subcommittee On Communications, Technology, Innovation And The Internet, U.S. Senate, February 4, 2016.