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Why Rural Broadband Matters to Us All

City dwellers probably don’t think much about rural broadband. However, the increasing importance of technology…

  • November 16, 2017

City dwellers probably don’t think much about rural broadband. However, the increasing importance of technology in raising the food on everyone’s table suggests that they should.

For instance, new Smart Farm technologies can give America’s growers the ability to monitor crop conditions in real time, respond to technical problems before machinery breaks down in the field and consult with the world’s foremost agronomic experts with the push of a button, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers reports.

That is, as long as they’ve got five bars of service and plenty of internet bandwidth. If not, the smartest piece of technology isn’t worth its weight in good, quality fertilizer.

And, according to Eric Lescourret, the Director of Strategic Marketing at AGCO Corporation, that dearth of rural bandwidth is the bottleneck that’s standing between American farmers and the next great breakthrough in agricultural productivity.

“That’s the dilemma, that our farmers out there are collecting more data for every seed they plant than they can process,” Lescourret says. “All of them are located in rural areas, and the broadband infrastructure is not keeping up.”

Even with the limited adoption of Smart Farm technology that is already underway, he says that American farmers are capturing one kilobyte of data per year for every seed that is planted.

That may not seem like much at first. But when you consider that a typical corn field has about 32,000 plants, that means that every corn field is producing about 32 megabytes of data annually—or about as much bandwidth as it will take you to stream the first four singles off Taylor Swift’s new album.

“Farmers are already producing 14.4 million gigabytes of data related to their corn crops annually”

But with 450 million acres of corn in the United States, that means that farmers are already producing 14.4 million gigabytes of data related to their corn crops annually—nearly 10 times as much bandwidth as has been used to stream Taylor Swift’s latest single 205 million times this year on Spotify.

On, perhaps, a more comprehensible scale, that much bandwidth would allow you to download the entire Library of Congress more than 50 times—just in the data captured from one year’s U.S. corn crop.

And Lescourret says those numbers are only going to grow as companies introduce new and more powerful Smart Farm technologies, like a new combine from AGCO that features more than 60 sensors which capture data in every second of operation.

“In managing the amount of data we have to get through from our sensors, all the way to a hub, back to an agronomist, and back and forth to our machine, it takes a lot of infrastructure to do that,” Lescourret says.

According to a 2016 report by the Federal Communications Commission, 39 percent of rural Americans lacked access to high speed broadband internet access (25 Mbps/3 Mbps), compared to just four percent of Americans in urban areas.

And in a business like farming where hours and minutes can be the difference between success and failure, Lescourrett says having to hand deliver data from the farm site to agronomy experts could do more than endanger the source of America’s food crops—it risks the nation’s strategic geopolitical standing with its trade partners and competitors.

“The Chinese, right now they need to import from us,” Lescourret says. “But it’s only a matter of time until they can grow their own crops and they become as productive as we are. So to me, (broadband infrastructure) is no less important than the defense industry, and it’s something we need to invest in.”

Food for thought.

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