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May 8, 2019

RURAL CONNECTIVITY: Federal Funding Promises Widespread Broadband Coverage

When Vice Chancellor Linda Thomas surveys the challenges facing the students at West Hills Community College in Coalinga, CA, lack of economic stability nears the top of the list. Few students can afford full-time, uninterrupted studies. They have to go to class, do homework and complete their coursework while working, taking care of family and just putting food on the table.

At least those are challenges that the students have some control over. Even more frustrating to the college administrator is the technological disadvantages that these students have to navigate. “We have a crisis on the Westside (of the San Joaquin Valley),” she said. “The lack of broadband and lack of economic development hurts our community.”

While on campus students do have access to the internet, but while at their homes or places of employment, it either doesn’t exist or is spotty at best. It’s difficult to get your college work done when you can’t access the internet…that’s the same internet readily available to elementary school students in urban areas throughout the country. Of course, Thomas said the lack of rural connectivity goes well beyond the impact on students. In her community, she said health outcomes also suffer as heart patients, for example, can’t utilize heart monitors, and many other patients suffer because of the inability to rely on other electronic medical devices.

This is the same story across America. Rural areas are technologically underserved. Because of the open-space geography necessary for agriculture, the industry is especially hard hit. Dennis Donohue, director at the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology in Salinas, agreed that lack of connectivity on farms is a major issue as the industry moves toward developing technological solutions to its problems. For example, a great hand-held system might be developed to offer real-time measurements of many different vital inputs but if that data can’t be accessed or transmitted because of lack of connectivity, its value is marginalized.

Terry Brase, director of Farm of the Future at the very same West Hills Community College where Thomas is an administrator, revealed how difficult it is to teach new technology to tomorrow’s agricultural leaders when you are working in an environment relying on 20th Century connectivity. In fact, for this phone interview, he had to pull over to the side of the road in an area in his rural community where he knew the cell signal would remain strong. Reiterating what Vice Chancellor Thomas had said, Brase noted that basic communication in his area is a huge challenge, let alone trying to engage his students in new precision agriculture advances. “In just the normal course of business, it is difficult to communicate with farms, offices or a home office. There just is no coverage in many areas.”

He said farmers trying to upload irrigation data can’t do it. “There is only a limited amount of technology you can use out here. Exchange of data is difficult. For example, utilizing yield data or uploading video takes quite a bit of bandwidth.”

Rural connectivity has been Thomas’ passion at West Hills. She has been looking for solutions and funding for several years, talking to legislators, internet service providers and local employers touting the advantage of having broadband access in the community. She has long operated under the assumption that the college district would have to pony up a good portion of the funding for any potential solution.

But the cavalry is on its way. It appears that not only will the Westside of the San Joaquin Valley be connected in the next few years, so will rural communities all over the country.

Connect America is a federal program launched several years ago to bring connectivity across the country with the help of federal dollars. The forces of the free market have done a relatively good job providing cell and broadband service to urban America. Half a dozen years ago, the U.S. Congress allocated funds to the Federal Communications Commission to extend this service to less populated areas. Experts interviewed for this story said the large service providers, such as Verizon and AT&T, helped write the regulations and cherry-picked the funding, so the end result was an extension of coverage but still not to most of rural America. Cell towers were set up to cover the major roads throughout the country but not the communities that existed beyond the interstates. As a matter of fact, these are the communities where agricultural production is centered. One expert said the coverage maps often touted by these large providers in their advertising are a joke at best. Large swatches of America have little or no coverage.

When the first round of funding didn’t solve the problem, the FCC launched Connect America Fund Phase II. Last year, the FCC conducted an auction (#903) allocating connectivity funding to underserved, and under-populated census blocks across the United States. Auction 903 ran from July 24 to August 21, 2018. More than 100 bidders won about $1.5 billion in funding spread out over 10 years to provide fixed broadband and voice services to more than 700,000 locations in 45 states.

For the past few months, the administration of the program—including rules—have been developed and winning bidders are now starting to build-out the broadband systems. The regulations call for a tiered approach to development with benchmarks having to be met on a specific timeline for further funding to continue. For example, within the first three years, a successful bidder must have expanded broadband support to 40 percent of the locations within the bid’s service area.

One such successful bidder is Commnet, which operates in most western states and won bids for many different rural areas including some locations in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. Michael Prior, CEO of ATN International, Commnet’s parent company, expects the build-outs to occur at a much more rapid pace than the six to 10 year timeline would indicate. “You are going to start to see major programs developed in the next six to nine months,” he told Western Grower & Shipper in early April.

Prior said the program’s funding incentives are tied to completion of projects so companies like Commnet are going to move fast. He, in fact, is bullish on the potential success of this effort. He said there is no one solution as many different technological advances are in the works that will provide this coverage in even sparsely populated areas. Commnet, he said, has much experience bringing broadband to communities with as few as four to 10 people per square mile.

Among the solutions being offered are point-to-point, line of sight connectivity. That is the solution being developed for Coalinga by Cal.net, a Northern California wireless provider that has 20 years of experience providing internet service to small towns and communities. Mark Herr said the company entered Auction 903 and was awarded many of the rural census blocks in the San Joaquin Valley stretching from Kern County to Redding.

Herr explained that the firm will be erecting towers and using tall buildings to locate line-of-sight equipment that will send wireless signals directly to equipment on homes and businesses. Hard wiring will connect the equipment on the home to a router or similar equipment within the home. “If we can use existing buildings, that will speed up the process and allow us to provide broadband service quicker,” Herr said.

He noted that the company’s field representatives are currently surveying their service areas determining locations for towers or suitable buildings. For example, he said Linda Thomas of West Hills Community College has offered several buildings at the district’s two campuses that could be used. Herr said any building in which there is uninterrupted line of sight for several miles is a great option. He added that the topography of California’s Central Valley offers many opportunities, as it is relatively flat with few tall trees that would obstruct the signal. “We would urge anyone to give us a call if they can offer access points that would help us avoid building a tower,” he said.

Of course, that would also give such building owners the advantage of having a very strong signal within their property.

Prior of ATN International said his company is actively and financially involved in developing other wireless solutions, including “near-line of sight” and “non-line of sight” fixed wireless options. The company is also investing in a low-orbiting satellite approach that could offer connectivity at a more rapid speed than currently available. He explained that satellites are an option but their placement far above the earth results in a time delay as a signal travels up to the satellite and back again.

Prior is optimistic that over the next two to three years, much progress will be made to connect Rural America to the 21st Century. However, he did caution that connectivity will still lag behind that which is available in Urban America. He reasoned that these new rural build-outs are seeing huge upgrades as 25 Mbps (megabyte per second) systems are being put in place. He said that certainly is adequate for most applications, including video streaming. But at the same time, urban areas are seeing upgrades to 250 Mbps or even 1 gigabyte systems.

For Linda Thomas, this federal program is a godsend that should help level the playing field for her students and community. For Terry Brase, it will allow his students to offer agricultural employers a technologically-advanced skill set indicative of the “Farm of the Future” program that they have completed.