Friday, December 3, 2021
You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.
Round-Up for the Week of Nov 29-Dec 3, 2021
Today, broadband is a necessary tool to innovate farming practices, allowing for more targeted and efficient resource use. Farmers need connectivity in the farmhouse and farm office, in the field, and in the community to enable sustainable, data-driven agriculture and meet the world’s rising demand for food. This week we learned of the recommendations of a blue-ribbon panel created by Congress to address the connectivity needs of agriculture.
The Farm Act and the Precision Ag Connectivity Task Force
The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (2018 Farm Act), was signed into law on December 20, 2018. In that law, Congress found that
- Precision agriculture technologies and practices allow farmers to significantly increase crop yields, eliminate overlap in operations, and reduce inputs such as seed, fertilizer, pesticides, water, and fuel.
- These technologies allow farmers to collect data in real time about their fields, automate field management, and maximize resources.
- Studies estimate that precision agriculture technologies can reduce agricultural operation costs by up to 25 dollars per acre and increase farm yields by up to 70 percent by 2050.
- The critical cost savings and productivity benefits of precision agriculture cannot be realized without the availability of reliable broadband Internet access service delivered to the agricultural land of the United States.
- The deployment of broadband Internet access service to unserved agricultural land is critical to the United States economy and to the continued leadership of the United States in global food production.
- Despite the growing demand for broadband Internet access service on agricultural land, broadband Internet access service is not consistently available where needed for agricultural operations.
- The Federal Communications Commission has an important role to play in the deployment of broadband Internet access service on unserved agricultural land to promote precision agriculture.
The 2018 Farm Act called on the FCC to establish the Task Force for Reviewing the Connectivity and Technology Needs of Precision Agriculture in the United States to:
- identify and measure current gaps in the availability of broadband Internet access service on agricultural land;
- develop policy recommendations to promote the rapid, expanded deployment of broadband Internet access service on unserved agricultural land, with a goal of achieving reliable capabilities on 95 percent of agricultural land in the United States by 2025;
- promote effective policy and regulatory solutions that encourage the adoption of broadband Internet access service on farms and ranches and promote precision agriculture;
- recommend specific new rules or amendments to existing rules that the FCC should issue to achieve the goals and purposes of the above policy recommendations;
- recommend specific steps that the FCC should take to obtain reliable and standardized data measurements of the availability of broadband Internet access service as may be necessary to target funding support, from future FCC programs dedicated to the deployment of broadband Internet access service, to unserved agricultural land in need of broadband Internet access service; and
- recommend specific steps that the FCC should consider to ensure that the expertise of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and available farm data are reflected in future FCC programs dedicated to the infrastructure deployment of broadband Internet access service and to direct available funding to unserved agricultural land where needed.
The task force is tasked to produce a report annually on:
- the status of fixed and mobile broadband Internet access service coverage of agricultural land;
- the projected future connectivity needs of agricultural operations, farmers, and ranchers; and
- the steps being taken to accurately measure the availability of broadband Internet access service on agricultural land and the limitations of current, as of the date of the report, measurement processes.
Precision Ag Connectivity Task Force Report
On November 10, 2021, the task force met and approved its latest report and recommendations. Overall, the task force finds that “digital infrastructure is tightly linked to the success of this great nation,” but “access to this infrastructure is not readily available in rural America.” The risks, the task force says, are decreased agricultural productivity and sustainability, education achievement gaps, declining rural communities, lower health care outcomes, hospital closures, crumbling main streets, lack of access to credit, and, paradoxically, the lack of fresh food in America’s heartland. The task force addresses these risks with a set of recommendations to the federal government on ways it can improve access, specifically on rural, agricultural lands.
I. Improve federal broadband maps and consistently validate user experiences
a. The task force recommends that the FCC and the USDA begin working immediately using data sets with the greatest breadth and preeminent industry authority and derive public-facing FCC broadband availability maps that reflect and confirm the unserved and underserved areas on agricultural lands based on the current broadband standard for fixed and mobile internet service to facilitate Precision Agriculture practices and adoption.
b. The task force recommends that the most recent map for agricultural producers be hosted on the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) website to include the base layers of National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) cropland data and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) data on rangeland and 3-D Elevation Program (3DEP) data.
c. With respect to the FCC’s broadband data collection, the task force recommends a uniform set of practices and validation processes to be developed by the FCC including crowd-sourced data validation and on the ground testing mechanisms to verify quality of service against broadband provider claims. Furthermore, the task force recommends that the USDA and Extension Service be used to facilitate measurement in this process. Finally, the broadband fabric data must include agricultural structures to which broadband is or would be deployed in addition to the home location, the shop, the office, or the mobile equipment.
d. The task force recommends that the broadband availability and quality data be independently verifiable, using methods consistent across the country. Within this process of verification, the needs of the Native communities should be assessed and met with culturally appropriate and locally accepted approaches to gathering accurate data.
II. Increase incentives to build out a robust infrastructure
a. While incentives and subsidies for connectivity deployment continue to be considered, the task force recommends that these incentives and subsidies be substantially increased to drive deployment of connectivity, with an overarching goal of deploying future-proof networks and relying upon various means, terrestrial/non-terrestrial, fixed/mobile platforms as they may be appropriate, and to include other elements to enable Precision Agriculture deployment in the areas of edge computing, private 5G-like technology infrastructures, and Precision Agriculture application development. These incentives should be deployed and administered at the most local level possible to ensure that they are efficiently, and effectively utilized, and localized accountability of deployment can be monitored and enforced.
b. The FCC should work with USDA and other relevant agencies to create incentives for specific types of infrastructure build-out that will support Precision Agriculture networks and operations, including:
- connectivity to rural agriculture land headquarter facilities;
- expansion of middle-mile infrastructure;
- deployment of local/last-acre network facilities for use by Precision Agriculture systems and devices; and
- clarify that precision agriculture architecture, including edge compute infrastructure and private 5G wireless systems, are eligible expenses for federal broadband programs to increase adoption.
III. Enhance the high-speed standards to meet the technology needs in agriculture
a. Given the increasing data flowing to and from agricultural operations because of current and future Precision Agriculture offerings as well as the need to deploy technologies that have an element of future proofing, the task force recommends that a broadband definition (both fixed and mobile) be enhanced to higher levels on both the download and upload speeds. The FCC’s current speed benchmark of 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload for advanced telecommunications capability is not only low in nature to drive innovation and utilization of Precision Agriculture, but the upload benchmark speed does not account for the vast amounts of data needed to be transferred from the field or farm to the cloud for storage, analysis, and insight generation. As such, the minimum speeds for federal funding should be 100 Mbps download/20 Mbps upload which is consistent with the federal funding requirements passed by Congress in the broadband infrastructure legislation. At this time, symmetrical upload/download should only be considered for broad application terrestrial wireline networks, as symmetrical standards are currently technically impractical for wireless technologies. These offer fiscal efficiency, superior environmental practice, and responsible resource allocation, leading to higher yields of safe, wholesome, and sustainable food, fiber, fauna, and fuel products. The suggestion is not to drive a rigid symmetrical standard but rather to raise the standard on both ends significantly and recognize the uplink capacity is not inferior to downlink needs. This approach should follow the recognition in the Communications Act that universal services are an evolving level of services. Implementation and subsidized investment of on-farm networks and supporting communities and ecosystems is critical to Precision Agriculture adoption as well as the availability of high-quality and digitally dependent jobs.
b. The FCC should identify, implement, and/or strengthen policies to facilitate use of low-, mid-, and high-band spectrum for Precision Agriculture applications, including:
- policies that facilitate access to licensed spectrum in rural areas where that spectrum is underutilized;
- policies that remove technical impediments to rural agricultural use cases;
- auction policies that create incentives for bidders to deploy broadband infrastructure in a useful manner (e.g., policies that require bidders to show the long-term sustainability and scalability of their proposed networks); and
- technical policies that improve the performance of rural wireless networks.
IV. Improve collaboration between federal agencies and remove regulatory impediments
a. The FCC should work with other federal agencies to adopt and implement a common set of performance targets and standards that reflect the specific needs of Precision Agriculture, such as:
- build-out requirements (e.g., in connection with spectrum auctions) based on geographic covered area that comprises croplands or ranch lands vs. covered population;
- multiple performance targets tailored for specific Precision Agriculture use cases (and reflecting quality metrics such as speed, latency, jitter, and packet loss); and
- service availability metrics (reflecting location- and time-based elements) that can be used in industry-standard propagation models.
b. USDA, the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the Farm Service Agency, the Risk Management Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and other agencies should align their existing and individual file management systems to have the capability to receive electronic data layers that are commonly created through the normal course of farm operations.
c. The FCC and other stakeholders should identify and eliminate regulatory impediments to:
- the use of novel business models to support infrastructure and broadband deployment;
- in rural areas where minimum service thresholds have not been met, applicants should have the ability to secure funds from multiple sources across state and federal agencies to support the initial buildout and ongoing infrastructure improvements; and
- regulations pertaining to broadband build-out on tribal lands.
d. The FCC should work with other stakeholders to prepare “playbooks” to provide appropriate guidance to relevant stakeholders, such as:
- a playbook for the creation and operation of rural community-based, non-profit solutions; and
- a playbook for Bureau of Indian Affairs program staff to facilitate build-out on Tribal lands.
V. Increase digital access to education and training for individuals engaged in farming
a. The adoption of Precision Agriculture will increase the demand for skilled workers. Technical education curriculums, apprenticeship programs, community colleges, extension, and land grant universities provide an avenue to rapidly fill this demand while providing hands-on training for a skilled workforce. Increasing access to distance learning, allowing rural citizens to satisfy post-secondary education and college-level degrees, more specifically allowing individuals engaged in farming to stay active in operations while achieving their educational goals should be a priority. The task force recommends that state, local, and federal agencies increase funding for STEM and digital vocational programs at the K-12 and community college levels specifically focused on technology, cyber security, and manufacturing careers in agriculture.
VI. Cybersecurity and Interoperability
a. Agriculture is an essential industry and is subject to cyber vulnerabilities: equipment, data layers, and supply chain. To accelerate Precision Agriculture adoption and most importantly, as a means of national security, federal cyber security policy should recognize agriculture as critical and essential infrastructure and malicious acts should be treated accordingly. The task force recommends that priority be placed on developing Precision Agriculture cyber security specialists by the USDA, Department of Homeland Security, and President Biden’s American Jobs Plan.
b. As the world looks to agriculture for climate solutions and consumer interest in how, when, and where their bio-based product is grown, it is imperative a standard for interoperability is established. One of the key incentives to adopt Precision Agriculture technologies is efficiency of resource use (land, seed, livestock, chemical, machinery, labor, management, and natural resources) and improved interoperability directly impacts the quality of such decisions. Traceability through a supply chain requires interoperability so verified data moves effortlessly as products change hands, processes occur, and services are performed. Increased interoperability will directly result in increased Precision Agriculture adoption, high-quality jobs, and consumer confidence.
Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)
ICYMI from Benton
Dec 6—Virtual Roundtable on FCC Telehealth Initiatives (FCC)
Dec 8—Tribal Broadband Data Collection Workshop (FCC)
Dec 8—Protecting Kids Online: Instagram and Reforms for Young Users (Senate Commerce Committee)
Dec 9—Legislative Hearing on Big Tech Accountability House Commerce Committee
Dec 13—Digital Divide Summit (Fierce Telecom)
Dec 14—December Open Meeting (FCC)
Dec 14—Privacy, Equity, and Civil Rights Listening Sessions (National Telecommunications and Information Administration)