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The establishment of a new broadband office in Mississippi heralds a new era in the state’s efforts to bring high quality broadband to all its residents, especially those living in the most rural parts of the state.
On the forefront of that effort is the Delta Electric Power Association, an electric cooperative currently building out fiber infrastructure in the Mississippi Delta region – a mostly rural part of the state with a majority Black population and where about a quarter of residents do not have access to broadband of any kind.
As in other states with sizable rural areas, electric cooperatives are playing a major role in building out high-speed Internet infrastructure.
In Mississippi, Delta Electric, has a service area that covers ten counties in the northwestern part of the state, providing electricity for 4,235 industrial, 3,144 commercial, and 21,174 residential member-owners.
Now, the cooperative has set its sights set on bringing high-speed Internet service to its members, left behind by the big national providers who do not consider the region profitable enough to invest in.
Electric Cooperative Starts With CARE(S)
It started in 2020, when the electric cooperative was awarded a $4.9 million Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act grant for a fiber pilot serving Carroll County with gig speed connections.
Chirping Soil and Autonomous Tractors: Connecting Agriculture in Nebraska - Episode 452 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
Christopher and Julie talk about the importance of reliable, symmetrical wireless data connections so farmers can deploy devices on farms which communicate across Long Range Wide Area Network (LoRaWAN) protocols to bring soil probes, combines, grain bins, wastewater management sensors, and other devices online to report conditions across far-flung fields. They also discuss how a robust rural network can support GPS for planting, irrigation, and harvest, as well as allow for data aggregation to increase efficiencies and allow mapping and maintenance via real-time drone operations.
Finally, Christopher and Julie dig into how more robust connectivity will help make sure high-quality jobs stay in the region, giving subsequent generations more incentive to stick around and help America's farms prosper.
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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
In a part of the Prairie State referred to as “Little Egypt,” a small county in southeastern Illinois recently received a big infusion of federal funds to expand its broadband network into neighboring rural counties.
In October of 2020, the USDA announced that the Hamilton County Telephone Cooperative was awarded a $20 million ReConnect grant and a $20 million ReConnect loan to bring broadband to over 19,000 residents, 462 businesses, 347 farms, 16 educational facilities, three post offices and four fire stations in Saline, Williamson, Franklin and White counties.
The $40 million in total Hamilton County received was a portion of the $600 million Congress appropriated to the USDA in 2018 to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural America. In April of 2020, the USDA announced it had received 172 applications worth $1.57 billion in Round Two ReConnect requests.
The funds awarded to Hamilton County in the fall came on top of the $3.4 million from the state-wide Connect Illinois program and ReConnect funds the co-op received in February of 2020 to build out its Fiber-To-The-Premises (FTTP) network to connect more than 600 homes in the rural county with a population just over 8,000 residents.
Decades of Service
Local officials in eight mostly-rural counties in southwest Pennsylvania are combining efforts to determine first, what connectivity is available and, second, what can be done to improve it.
Seeking Updated Information
Westmoreland, Fayette, Cambria, Somerset, Blair, Bedford, Huntingdon, and Fulton counties have been working with consulting firm Design Nine to develop a survey to share with residents in the region. The Regional Broadband Task Force, established by the Southern Alleghenies Planning & Development Commission (SAP&DC), gathered limited data in the past. They estimate that six percent of folks in the region live in places without wired broadband Internet access.
An earlier study determined that:
...2.3 percentage of the 354,751 residents fall below that level of service [25 Mbps upload and 3 Mbps download]. About 1.6 percentage of Blair County’s 123,842 population and 2.2 percentage of Cambria County’s 134,550 population are lacking that basic level of connectivity. At the other end of the spectrum, 55.2 percentage of Fulton County’s 14,506 residents are without the service.
Funding for the study comes from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). The Task Force received $50,000 from ARC and the member counties contributed a matching $50,000 for the study. They began looking for a firm to help develop the study last fall and chose Design Nine hoping to determine:
- Level of service being provided; the needs of local businesses and the reliability of the current services being provided;
- An inventory of broadband assets already in place;
- An assessment community broadband requirements for bandwidth needs;
- Determine best technologies to meet the coal impacted community needs; and
- Cost estimates for different deployment strategies
Businesses Want More in Westmoreland
Farmers depend on Internet connectivity like any other businesses for daily office tasks such as record keeping, reporting, banking, and marketing. This dependency stretches further as daily farming productivity depend on GPS-based applications that enable real-time data collection giving accurate information on soil fertility, field mapping, and other farm-related tasks. An October 2019 report from the United Soybean Board (USB) describes how poor connectivity is striking at the heart of America’s agricultural industry.
Profitability and Sustainability: Threatened
The report, titled Rural Broadband and the American Farmer [PDF] reveals that 60 percent of U.S. farmers and ranchers do not have adequate Internet connectivity to run their business and 78 percent do not have a choice in Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The USB study touches on how poor Internet connectivity in rural parts of the country has negatively impacted profitability and sustainability in farming.
Among 2,000 farmers surveyed by the USB, 59 percent of farmers plan to incorporate more data onto their system and 28 percent are considering more data usage. Most also want to use high-tech and data transfer applications but the impact of poor connectivity and unreliable Internet service does not allow them to do so. Michael H., a soybean farmer in south-central Louisiana said that, “Without the right support network, we can’t even consider taking advantage of getting real-time information from one piece of equipment to another.” Up to 33 percent of farmers said poor connectivity has affected their equipment purchases.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service reports that farming productivity contributes nearly $133 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) but lack of connectivity has heavily impacted farmers to contribute only $80 billion.
Arkansas soybean, cotton, and corn farmer Vonda K. explained:
Thanks to the Blandin on Broadband blog for bringing our attention to this story!
Farming has gone high tech with feathers, high-speed Internet access, and cutting-edge robots. Jack Kilian a University of Minnesota engineering master’s graduate is behind the Poultry Patrol, a robot for managing turkeys and chickens.
Poultry Patrol, Sign of the Future
The Northfield News covered the story on how Kilian designed the autonomous robot to help farmers with both mundane tasks, such as turning bedding, and important jobs, including detecting diseases. The idea for this handy farm robot came out of a Digi Lab project called the Wild Goose Chaser, a robot used to chase geese off of lawns.
Kilian, however, is far more interested in farming and technology. The Red Wing Ignite center awarded the recent engineering grad $12,500 from the Ag Tech Challenge to fund the Poultry Patrol
Better Tech, Better Internet Access
Agriculture is growing and needs sophisticated technology to manage crops and animals, but that tech works more effectively with better communication, such as high-speed Internet access. Kilian told the Northfield News that the next task is figuring out how to improve Internet access in rural Minnesota.
While some areas of the state are seeing better connectivity, the pace of deployment isn't rapid enough to allow many farmers to take advantage of the innovations in agriculture. Minnesota’s Office of Broadband Development in the Department of Employment and Economic Development is offering $20 million in funding this fall to help close the rural-urban digital divide.
Read more about the Minnesota Broadband program and how to apply for grant funding for your local project here. The Office of Broadband Development will accept applications for funding through September 13, 2019.
When rural broadband advocates talk about the connectivity needs of farmers, they often discuss real-time crop prices, monitoring the status of fields, or the ability to submit data-intensive reports. An innovator in North Carolina has a different take on why fast, affordable, reliable connectivity is important to his ag-related business and it involves hog waste. He explains how North Carolina’s municipal networks and cooperatives need to be able to operate without restriction if the state’s agribusiness is to advance.
Methane is Power, but Broadband is a Must
In a recent opinion piece by Mark Maloney, the CEO and founder of OptimaBio writes that his company is developing a method for capturing methane from hog waste and transforming the biogas into electricity. According to Maloney, the pilot program has the potential to expand in order to provide affordable energy while also reducing harm to the environment.
A key element that OptimaBio requires, however, is reliable and fast connectivity, which isn't readily available in many rural North Carolina communities yet:
The equipment that allows this conversion produces large amounts of data to assist us in understanding operations and avoid downtime.
That data is of no value if we cannot transmit it over a reliable communications network.
Today, without reliable broadband, we use radio signals to get the job done. It’s not ideal.
He describes how weather and trees can interrupt radio signals that must be in line of sight of each other, and how the company must purchase expensive equipment in order to use radio signals. At this stage, there is no other alternative in the rural areas where they operate.
A Chronic Problem
Maloney writes that his company is one of many in the agriculture industry that struggles due to poor rural connectivity in North Carolina. In order to allow agribusiness to pursue innovations that can solve problems and find improvements, the state needs to remove onerous hurdles.
On April 4th, 2019, the Board of Commissioners of Berrien County, Michigan approved a resolution that formally acknowledges that achieving countywide access to high-speed Internet is crucial to the county’s mission of improving quality of life for present and future generations.
Connected Nation ranks Michigan 34th among states for broadband adoption and an estimated 368,000 rural households still do not have access to FCC defined broadband at 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. Many areas of Berrien County lack access to Internet speeds over 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps uploads. The resolution will ensure that the county commits to pursuing opportunities and partnerships that increase broadband availability.
County commissioners Ezra Scott, of New Buffalo, and Teri Freehling, of Baroda introduced the measure and have already begun taking steps to turn it into action including creating a board subcommittee that works with municipalities and community partners to pursue broadband opportunities. They're also exploring the possibility of a grant application for the newly announced U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural eConnectivity Pilot Program (ReConnect Program). The commissioners hope that the resolution demonstrates how serious Berrien County is about pursuing countywide broadband access. As Freehling stated, “broadband is more than an option, it’s a necessity.”
Minnesota’s RS Fiber Cooperative has brought gigabit connectivity to households and businesses in small, rural towns in Renville and Sibley Counties. Within the next few years, they plan to transition households beyond towns from their wireless access as they expand their Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) footprint. A recent MinnPost article features how the network has attracted a different kind of venture to one of the small member towns — a 3D printing business.
Gibbon, Minnesota (pop. 750), is known for quiet streets, rather than the shiny futuristic landscapes one associates with high-tech entrepreneurs. The community, however, was exactly what Adam Stegeman was looking for when searching for a place to set up shop. He had been selling 3D printers for years and was ready to strike out on his own. The Stegeman Family wanted a small-town environment and, since much of Adam’s work requires transfer of data intensive 3D design files, a community that also had access to fast, affordable, reliable connectivity was a must. As one of the RS Fiber Co-op member towns, Gibbon met both requirements.
When MinnPost asked Stegeman about the presence of the network in Gibbon and its influence on his decision to settle there: “That was absolutely huge,” Stegeman said.
The Fabric of the Community
This is the transcript for episode 232 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, General Manager Josh Byrnes of Osage Municipal Utilities joins the show to share how fiber connectivity has benefited the Iowa community. Listen to this episode here.
Josh Byrnes: Everything is live about it, you can lock in your commodity prices, all your inputs and all those things can be done. We've got to have connectivity, in rural Iowa.
Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 232 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute For Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. In Osage, Iowa, the community's electric utility has served the town and some of the rural areas around it for about 125 years. Osage Municipal Utilities also offers natural gas services and invested in its own communication system in the early 2000s. They offer telephone, cable TV and Internet connectivity via their cable network. Clearly Osage is one of those rural communities that think about the future. In this interview Christopher speaks with Josh Byrnes, the general manager of Osage municipal utilities, who discusses their long term plans to bring Fiber-to-the-Home to the community. Josh who is also a former state representative spends some time discussing Iowa's approach to rural connectivity and its investment in the Iowa communications network. Now here's Chris talking with Josh Byrnes, general manager of the Osage municipal utilities and a former member of the Iowa House of Representatives.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell and today I'm speaking with Josh Byrnes, the general manager of Osage Municipal Utilities in Iowa. Welcome to the show.
Josh Byrnes: Thanks for having me Chris.
Chris Mitchell: I'm excited to talk to you, as I was saying in our pre-interview I actually have this memory and I'm excited to be reminded of the story that you'll be telling us in a few minutes about these cattle prices and an app, around how it's important to have Internet access out on farms near your community. Let's start with a little bit of background for people who aren't familiar with Osage. Where are you in Iowa? What's the community like?