March 30, 2020

Rural access to broadband slows adoption of new ag technologies

By Zenon Andryo


The internet connects our world – individuals to one another, the services they need, community and more. This connectivity is more important than ever as we face issues with reach far beyond our immediate geographical communities.

In 1995 the internet became widely available to the public. Since then communication and accessibility have become convenient and nearly instantaneous. Subsequently, 59%I of the entire global population now has internet as of 2020, with the number growing at an exponential rate each year.

In Canada, 35 million people have access to the internet of its 38 million citizens (as of 2019)II, and in the United States, the number is 312 million citizens out of 331 millionIII. However, urban and suburban areas have been reaping the benefits of reliable internet, while rural areas have been largely suffering from slow, or no, internet connection. Rural internet connection is not only unreliable and slow, it is also incredibly expensive.

In fact, according to a Pew Research Centre survey in 2018IV, 58% of rural households in the U.S. reported that internet coverage in their area was either a major or minor problem, as opposed to 44% and 37% respectively in urban and suburban areas.

Connecting wheat to Wi-Fi

As farming technology continues to rapidly evolve, access to affordable, reliable broadband will become crucial for the success of farmers, and by association, everyone who enjoys access to affordable, local food. In fact, the demand for food will double by 2050 and implementing connective agriculture and agri-food technologies to maximum potential will help farmers keep up with demand.

Agricultural productivity would boom with the implementation of better rural broadband. Drones, GPS, autonomous machinery and other tools for precision agriculture all rely on some form of broadband connection, as does the ability to transmit collected data to relevant parties.

With reliable internet, farmers can keep accurate tracking of real-time data, therefore allowing them to make in-field decisions faster, as opposed to relying on historical data. The result is a streamlined operation that yields higher crop outputs efficiently, while also providing consumers with the food traceability backed by data that they demand. Learn more about food traceability here.

Access to broadband isn’t just essential for farmers looking to adopt new technologies, it is absolutely essential for basic communications as witnessed during a global crisis like COVID-19. According to Network WorldV, “it has started to see a degradation of mobile and fixed-broadband performance worldwide. Comparing the week of March 16 to the week of March 9, mean download speed over mobile and fixed broadband decreased in Canada and the U.S.” The pressure on the network could impact rural populations the greatest.

While the idea of implementing better internet may seem simple, it is the furthest thing from it.

The last mile problem

The issue rural households and ag operations face in the US and Canada is a density deficiency. Rural homes are too spread out to adequately cover rural areas with the amount of connective digital infrastructure currently in place.

Canada has a population density of 4 people per sq. km.VI (10 per sq. mi). The true density is hard to quantify because nearly 20 million people live between Windsor and Quebec City, and the majority of the country’s population resides within 100 km (62 mi) from the United States border. Large swaths north of the 100 km range are sparsely inhabited, if at all. Adding to the connective complication, the rugged and varied terrain often does not help with signal transmission.

The USA has 33 people per sq. mi.VII (87 people per sq. km.), which is much denser than Canada, yet the USA faces the same connectivity issues. A large portion of the density is focused east of Texas, and several areas of North Dakota (10 people per sq. mi.), South Dakota (11), Nebraska (24), Kansas (36) and Iowa (55), have low population densities. However, they are all vital states to the US agriculture economy.

A broadband tower often has a range of 25 km2, which does not serve enough customers based on the aforementioned densities. For the cost of implementing and maintaining a tower that might only serve a small number of customers in a particular area, the value is hard to justify for the provider. Consequently, when a tower is erected for rural use, the concurrent cost on customers is much higher because of the thin user base.

To further the difficulty, copper or fibre optic cable need to be relayed from a power source to the tower itself, and the tower then needs an obstacle-free line of sight to the receiver. Difficult terrain such as mountainous or forested areas and ground that is frozen for extended periods of the year make it difficult to install the necessary infrastructure.

The reason neither country has internet speeds comparable to South Korea (the country with the world’s fastest internet) is that 51 million people live within an area that is 100x smaller than Canada, or 99x smaller than the USA. Nearly 20 million live in South Korea’s capital city, Seoul. The infrastructure can be implemented on rooftops and skyscrapers across the country, creating a proverbial service blanket for a large part of the country.

Lack of competition may also hinder the ability of large companies like AT&T or Verizon from entering areas with no current infrastructure. From a business perspective, being the only service provider for miles-on-end can essentially create monopolies over entire regions, stifling competition and giving businesses unlimited control over pricing and services. With the high costs of maintenance and implementation of infrastructure, few companies may be even willing to compete with large players like them. Governments may be hesitant to approve these service providers from entering these regions due to potential predatory pricing and fears of antitrust issues.

The solution

Deeper investment from private companies, new government policies and cooperation between the two sides are key factors in successfully connecting rural areas to adequate broadband.

For Canadians, the CRTC had established a target internet speed for all Canadians of 50 mbps download and 10 mbps upload. But, has since tempered expectations to 25/5 mbps. The current government has pledged six billion dollars to connect and provide all Canadian households with 50/10 mbps across the country by 2030. Although, strife between government policy and private investment is slowing progress on that pledge.

For the USA, states are setting their own goals for broadband speeds. Minnesota, for example, has set a goal for statewide broadband to be at least 25/3 mbps by 2022, and 100/20 mbps by 2026. Minnesota stateVIII has secured nearly 90 million dollars in public funding as of 2019 and has awarded it in grants to companies willing to implement the infrastructure. So far, 110 million has been spent, and Minnesota went from 86 per cent connectivity in 2015 to 91 per cent in 2019.

Some states still have laws preventing local governments from building networks, presumably to maintain competition.

While progress is starting to gain momentum, without better cooperation and larger investment from both private and public sectors, farmers will be left behind, and the agriculture industry as a whole will suffer.

The economic benefits of providing broadband to farmers have massive potential to funnel money back into private businesses and local and federal governments through private purchases, data collection and a larger farming workforce putting out higher crop yields.

The future

The inevitability of 5G has plenty of people excited, as it is seen as the next evolution in internet speed. For cities, it means more bandwidth, improved internet speed and the development of new technology that can harness the 5G power.

While farms have enough issues with bandwidth and signal issues in the first place, 5G is highly unlikely in the traditional sense. However, a satellite system known as StarLink has recently passed the development phase and has begun launching into space. Created by Elon Musk and his team, StarLink aims to deliver faster, cheaper internet to all corners of the globe, including the most rural areas.

Isn’t it strange that instead of looking for solutions on the ground, we’re looking for solutions among the stars?


Zenon Andryo is a Multimedia Content Specialist with an obsession for the latest in tech innovations, whether it be a new piece of farm equipment, or a gadget he can add to his ever-expanding camera bag. Also an avid oxford comma advocate.