Early autumn means the start of harvest season for thousands of farmers across Montana. But for many, their ability to compete in an increasingly challenging and globalized agriculture market is hampered by a lack of broadband connectivity.
Without adequate access to the internet at broadband speeds, too many Montana farmers and agricultural communities across the state can’t access the same basic tools and advanced precision agriculture technologies that are available in connected areas.
These new tools have the power to dramatically increase yields and conserve resources. These advancements can secure the competitiveness of Montana’s agricultural producers for generations to come.
But many of these cutting-edge technologies require broadband connectivity to function — meaning farmers stuck behind the broadband gap are put at a competitive disadvantage in the global market. Not only does the digital divide impact the competitiveness of Montana farmers, but it also holds back the rural communities where they live, work, raise their families, and retire.
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), roughly 238,000 Montanans lack access to broadband internet. Some of those folks may have broadband access available but choose not to purchase it — however, there is broad, bipartisan agreement the scale of the problem is far greater than what the FCC’s current methodology demonstrates.
Wherever the true scale of the problem falls, it’s clear that determining the true need for increased access to broadband is significant. The rural broadband gap holds agricultural producers back from capitalizing on technology, reduces economic opportunity in rural communities, and can limit access to telehealth solutions.
As the state’s largest agriculture association, we see firsthand the impact the broadband gap has on producers and the communities they support. Montana’s rural broadband providers have done an excellent job in expanding service for Montanans on the front lines of bridging the digital divide — they’ve laid out over 25,000 miles of fiber optic cables and invest over $100 million each year to expand broadband capability. They have a tough job. To arm providers and innovators with the tools needed to completely eliminate the rural broadband gap, we need policymakers to embrace an all-of-the-above approach.
That’s why the Montana Farm Bureau Federation advocates for policymakers in Washington to make bridging the digital divide by following a mixed-technology approach a top priority and is a member of coalition called Connect Americans Now (CAN).
Connect Americans Now is a broad-based coalition of over 200 organizations, representing established voices in agriculture, healthcare, small business, education, local government, and more – committed to eliminating the digital divide by employing a mixed-technology model.
Recently, the Montana Farm Bureau joined with CAN and 24 other organizations, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, to petition the FCC to support innovative technologies that can help bridge the digital divide.
This petition outlines the ways the commission can clear regulatory hurdles holding back TV white space technology, an innovative wireless solution for broadband deployment that can supplement traditional technologies in rural areas.
Expanding the deployability of solutions like TVWS could help bring broadband to farms, homes and communities in the “last mile” – the most rural areas that are most difficult to connect.
The FCC has made commendable strides to clear regulatory barriers to innovations like TVWS, including a decision to ensures sufficient spectrum for the technology earlier this year.
We also applaud Senators Daines and Tester for making this a priority and for putting forward solutions to expand connectivity.
We encourage Montana’s lawmakers in Washington to continue working with the commission to clear regulatory barriers to innovation and to pursue every solution to bring broadband connectivity to our communities.
Montana’s farmers and agricultural communities are counting on their success.
John Youngberg is executive vice president of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation.