Arkansas ranks last in the country in rural broadband access, and a newly released U.S. Department of Agriculture study shows expanded internet access could generate at least $47 billion in economic activity per year. USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue recently unveiled the report, A Case for Rural Broadband: Insights on Rural Broadband Infrastructure and Next Generation Precision Agriculture Technologies.
The report found that deployment of both broadband e-connectivity and next generation precision agriculture technology on farms and ranches throughout the U.S. would generate billions in the agriculture sector. The need for expanded access was identified, but USDA didn’t release any specifics about how it plans to tackle the problem.
“Broadband and next generation precision agriculture are critical components for creating vital access to world-class resources, tools and opportunity for America’s farmers, ranchers, foresters and producers,” Perdue said. “Under the leadership of President Trump, USDA is committed to doing our part to clear the way for nationwide broadband connectivity that will allow the next generation of precision agriculture technologies to thrive and expand.”
Precision agriculture is dependent on internet access. About 29% of U.S. farms and ranches do not have access to the internet, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. Precision ag is used to improve yields, maximizing field use and is critical for collecting data to help study trends. About 39% of all rural residents don’t have access to 25 Mbps service, while about 4% of urban residents don’t have access to 25 Mbps service.
“Current and future generations of rural Americans will be left behind their fellow citizens if they are without affordable high-speed broadband service that enables them to tap into health care and education services, government agencies, and new business opportunities,” according to AFBF.
In Arkansas, the situation is worse than in most states. Agriculture is the state’s top economic sector with an annual impact of more than $16 billion. It ranks last among all states in access to 25Mbps service, according to Broadband Now.
Several counties in the heavily agrarian Delta region have almost no high speed internet access. Those counties include Arkansas (18.6%), Lincoln (30.8%), Lee (32.4%), and St. Francis (37%). In the Ozarks where chicken and cattle farms are found, several counties had virtually no access at all. Those counties included Stone (0.7%), Newton (1.2%), and Van Buren (13.2%).
The USDA report also finds that if broadband infrastructure and digital technologies at scale were available at a level that meets estimated producer demand, the U.S. economy could realize benefits equivalent to nearly 18% of total agriculture production. Of that 18%, more than one-third is dependent on broadband e-connectivity, equivalent to at least $18 billion in annual economic benefits that only high-speed, reliable internet can provide.
For many years, USDA and the American agriculture industry have been actively researching the feasibility, usage and potential upside of next generation precision agriculture technologies, according to USDA. Until now though, the interdependency of these technologies and broadband e-connectivity has not been evaluated.
The report released explores this symbiotic relationship and quantifies the potential economic benefit of broadband buildout and the complementary adoption of connected agriculture technologies, the USDA found. The USDA will be engaged in multiple facets of infrastructure and technology deployment, including financing rural capital investments and supporting producers who are exploring which next generation precision agriculture technologies are best suited to improve operations and serve customers.
In April 2017, President Donald Trump established the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity to identify legislative, regulatory and policy changes that could promote agriculture and prosperity in rural communities.
In January 2018, Perdue presented the Task Force’s findings to President Trump. These findings included 31 recommendations to align the federal government with state, local and tribal governments to take advantage of opportunities that exist in rural America.
Arkansas lawmakers passed a law in the 2019 legislative session to offer more opportunities for local governments to partner with private Internet Service Providers to improve rural broadband access.