A Win For Rural America? Broadband & Telework

A Win For Rural America? Broadband & Telework
As equipment becomes “smarter” and the world moves more and more towards the digital age – rural broadband and equal access to connectivity is more essential than ever.

One of the last “official” appointments I had in the public policy space was a two year stent on the Federal Communication Commission Precision Ag Connectivity Task Force. I served on the “Adoption and Jobs” working group. Joined by several members of the agriculture community as well as members from other industries we worked to compile a report on the importance of connectivity to agriculture and rural America. The task force was launched as part of the 2018 Farm Bill and was tasked with providing a current state assessment as well as advice and recommendations for forward looking broadband deployments and needs. The final report can be found here.

Little did I know – how critical and how relevant this work would ultimately become for my life. I should note, we are fortunate enough to live in an area with decent broadband (excellent broadband by rural America standards). Our co-op had previously sought a federal grant to install fiber for most of their coverage area, we gained fiber in 2018. But the final report from our Working Group solidified what myself and many others in agriculture and rural America already knew:

Moreover, and as an overarching perspective, rural broadband
is critical to the viability of rural America, including the exponential benefits to job growth and
availability for all job sectors, including middle skills jobs and opportunities grounded in Career
and Technical Education training.1 As highlighted by this Task Force, lack of connectivity is a key
barrier to precision agriculture adoption and the availability of high quality jobs in rural America.

Link to Working Group Report here

Rural Meets Urban

By the middle of 2020 I found myself working for Amazon again as an Operations Manager for Amazon Logistics. I am now a Senior Regional Manager – and while I am generally based out of Seattle and we own a home there – I have every intention of eventually moving to a role that at least supports living in MT full time (with willingness to travel extensively). To even begin to have that opportunity – high speed connectivity is a must. The world relies on Zoom, Chime, Slack, whatever the technology you are using, we rely on high speed internet connectivity to run the world.

As our Working Group and the task force in general coincided with the pandemic and while we likely would have analyzed the impact and need for broadband for all of rural America, the increased demands during COVID certainly garnered extra attention. The working group highlighted several key developments of the pandemic – specifically the rise of telework.

Broadband plays a critical role in supporting both on-site and telework opportunities in
rural regions. For firms with an on-site presence, a robust broadband connection expands
marketplace opportunities by broadening the range of interactions that can be enjoyed with
clients and customers. For telework-based firms and their employees, broadband enables firms
to not only balance various needs of their employees but to also recruit from a deeper pool of
qualified candidates. COVID-19 and office closures illuminated the crucial need for
telework capabilities . . . Of course, not all jobs can be teleworked:
according to data cited by Pew Research Center, about 60% of U.S. jobs must be done onsite, including those that rely upon machines and equipment.41 The remaining 40% of U.S. jobs,
however, offer important telework opportunities. Although the ability to telework does not
necessarily translate to zero job loss, data indicate a lower likelihood of job loss. Pew notes that
from February to March, employment in jobs that could not be performed via telework were
down 2.7%, while telework-capable jobs decreased 0.5%.42

Task Force for Reviewing the Connectivity and
Technology Needs of Precision Agriculture in the
United States

If there are any winners in the pandemic one of them was absolutely telework advocates. Companies and rural America are also winners as flexible work environments and telework open up a significant number of jobs and opportunities that never used to exist in rural America. We are now able to focus on retaining population and even increasing the size of small towns across the US as people re-assess their priorities and opt to leave urban life for slower pace and more open spaces. Individuals that previously may have left small towns to pursue opportunities that were unavailable to them (software engineers, program managers, produce managers, and countless other roles) now find them available for telework. The so called “FAANG” companies (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google) all have increased their flexibility and telework options. Imagine bringing hundreds of high paying jobs into rural America to support the vitality of our rural mainstreets, schools, and farm economies. All we need is adequate broadband connectivity.

Precision Agriculture and Connectivity

The agricluture space continues to innovate into cloud technology, integrated equipment with highly specialized GPS, integrated computer systems, and a requirement for continued connectivity. The average household has 14 connected devices – however farms can have countless. The Working Group indentified not only equipment, but grain handling facilities, elevators, feed mixers, irrigation systems, grain dryers, wearable technology (specifically the dairy industry) and several other critical infastruture systems that depend on either intermittent or constant connectivity. The demands of precision agriculture far out strip the demands of the average 14 connected devices in US households. The connectivity demands also far exceed our current connectivity maps as we only evaluate existing households and businesses, our expansive farm acreage is not considered in connectivity assessments and absolutely needs to be going forward.

The Working Group and ulitimately the Task Force made multiple recommendations to the FCC and USDA for driving continued improvements in rural connectivity and ensuring all of rural America has the necessary connectivity to not long connect their households but also the growing demand for connectivity in the agriculture technology space. The recommendations ranged from new enhancements and opportunties within the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program to recommendations for USDA Rural Development and agriculture lending. Among the final recommendations is arguably the most critical:

The FCC and USDA should consider on-farm broadband as critical rural infrastructure for
surrounding rural communities and the ecosystems they support. These benefits positively
impact education, health care, and rural vitality, leading to the expansion of precision
agriculture adoption and the availability of high-quality jobs.

While it cuts out a significant amount of critical details – and I encourage you all to read the report, it is a relatively short 135ish pages, but the recommendations and info contained in the report paint the picture of the critical nature of broadband to the continued success of agriculture and rural America.

For myself – it’s hard to imagine how different our life and situation would be without fiber internet – and the ability to support an off-farm career that is a vital economic support for our family. It also lets me experience PNW agriculture and the spring tulip blooms.

Critical Economy

While I have mentioned my job is not a remote role and we do split our time between Seattle and Montana, I do and will continue to have the ability to move into a remote role. The economic support and flexibility my job provides our family in the face of considerable economic uncertainty in the farm economy is critical to our success, I prefer to not think about where we would be without it. I am a strong advocate that everyone has the access and ability to provide their family that stability while still chasing their dreams in Rural America. Given that stability and economic injection into the rural economy and our farm families is a huge win for rural America. As such we cannot underscore enough the need for this critical infastructure to encompass all of rural America and touch every needed corner of our geographies.

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