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Farmers: Broadband Access Is Vital

by Jerry Goshert

Published: Friday, February 2, 2018

Rural areas are at a clear disadvantage to cities and towns when it comes to broadband Internet access.

Farmers are often told that they need to cut costs and become more efficient, but when they use the Internet to submit forms, upload harvest information or access the latest market data, they run into several roadblocks that prevent them from competing in a 21st century economy.

Large businesses that are located in cities and towns generally do not have this problem. As one telecommunications executive pointed out, the infrastructure needed for Internet access is usually placed where the majority of customers live and work. That delivers the most return for the investment. The further out one lives in the rural corners, the more difficult it is to get good service.

Mark York, a Wabash County hog farmer, said good broadband service is "incredibly important" to his farming operation. He said it is difficult to run a small business when weak Internet signals are the norm.

For example, all of the controls in his hog barn are operated by smart phone. The information sent to York's phone provides a snapshot of what's going on inside the facility. The various readings, such as room temperature, are vital to the welfare of the pigs. The integrator, which owns the animals, also relies on this data to monitor the conditions inside.

But York points out that a weak signal can result in a delay of up to three minutes while the signal buffers. On a hot summer day, that could lead to overheating and cause the pigs to die.

Poor service also affects his ability to fill out and submit forms electronically. It even interferes with his children doing homework online. More than once, York said, he has attempted to fill out a form, only for the service to drop, forcing him to start over.

"It's very aggravating as well as inefficient," York said.

He said there is a strong case to be made for extending Internet service "to the last mile." While rural areas may have fewer paying customers than cities and towns, agriculture is an economic driver of the local economies in those areas. In Wabash County, half of the county's economic activity springs from agriculture.

York and other farmers say they are doing their best to be low cost producers, but they simply can't be competitive if their Internet service is "Third World."

Another farmer, Lana Wallpe, said the lack of broadband Internet service is a detriment to her family's Benton County grain operation. Information that can be easily uploaded to the computer in minutes with broadband Internet service instead requires hours, she said, causing frustration and costing her time and money.

Benton County is one of the most sparsely population counties in Indiana, she said, but at the same time it is one of the "heaviest" agriculture counties in the state.

Wallpe, who is president of the Benton County Farm Bureau, partners with her husband to raise corn and soybeans using precision agriculture tools. As the primary combine driver during harvest, she notices that the combine sometimes jumps unexpectedly when the satellite shifts position (they get their Internet service via satellite). If there is a delay in Internet service, the so-called A-B lines won't be lined up with the header. She said this is troublesome when they are "loading on the go."

The lack of reliable service can be costly when farmers are marketing their grain, Wallpe said. If the Internet signal is weak, farmers may find themselves making decisions without having the most up-to-date information. She pointed out that a delay of one or two hours can mean profit or loss on any particular transaction.

Having broadband Internet, Wallpe said, would allow farmers to "keep our heads above water."

Back at home, Wallpe said her children access the Internet on e-learning days and often have trouble working without interruptions caused by poor service.

Bruce Kettler, the new director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture, said strong connectivity is vital to farmers and their suppliers. Local fertilizer companies need a strong Internet signal to provide site-specific services requiring lots of data and bandwidth, Kettler said.

With the popularity of drones, farmers are able to take pictures of their crops, but accessing those photos on their computer or smart phone is sometimes difficult due to poor Internet service.

Beyond the farmgate, Kettler said rural hospitals and schools all depend on broadband Internet for their efficient operations.

Kettler said broadband Internet is needed to help farmers access "real time" information for better decision making. Input suppliers can provide more services at a reduced cost.

The solution to the problem appears to be more infrastructure in rural areas. One key question, Kettler said, is whether government can work with communication companies to show the value of extending broadband to rural areas.

"It's going to take some bold moves to make it happen," Kettler said.

From an economic perspective, extending broadband connectivity to the remote corners of Indiana doesn't produce a return on investment, according to Mark Grady, general manager at New Paris Telephone in New Paris. This is particularly true in the Amish communities of Elkhart and LaGrange counties.

"If you don't have the customers, it's difficult to justify the cost," Grady said.

Extending broadband infrastructure to "the last mile" represents a "significant" challenge, he said. Most people with smart phones obtain their Internet service through multiple towers that are built along major highways, but Grady said this is also the most expensive methods.

New Paris Telephone provides Internet service through fiber optic cables buried under ground, but the company's focus thus far has been on providing service to local businesses, not farms and rural residents.

But some hope is on the horizon.

Grady said electric cooperatives are considering joint ventures that would extend broadband (through fiber) to the countryside. The federal government offers loan programs that may provide incentives for this investment, and Indiana lawmakers are also considering legislation (HB 1065) that would study broadband expansion and recommend priority areas for broadband expansion.

Summarizing the situation, Wallpe, the Benton County farmer, said service in her area 20 miles north of Lafayette is "random." Small businesses are drying up because of the lack of reliable service. Without any help, she predicted that Indiana's rural areas will become a wasteland.

She said her goal isn't to have better service than others, "just equal."

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