This piece originally appeared in Broadband Breakfast.
Although internet access has become an essential part of modern life, much of rural America remains unconnected. Closing this digital divide between urban and rural America has been a stated priority for both Democrats and Republicans, including President Biden. But the Federal Communications Commission, which is charged with running several programs to bring the internet to rural America, continues to ignore the systems best equipped to do so. Private-sector companies like John Deere have come to recognize the usefulness of satellite internet services for rural America; it’s time the FCC followed suit.
While most Americans only have to think about which internet provider will give them the best deal, many rural Americans are concerned with whether they have internet access at all. The lack of connectivity has serious implications for an agricultural industry that is increasingly reliant on “smart” agricultural equipment such as tractors, harvesters, and combines that require an internet connection. By the latest count, approximately 17 percent of rural lands have no access to broadband at all and, according to John Deere, 30 percent of farmland in the U.S. lacks sufficient broadband to run the types of equipment it hopes to connect using satellite services, leaving many farmers and ranchers without the means to take advantage of modern equipment.
Traditional broadband infrastructure—laying fiber-optic cables or setting up cell towers—is prohibitively expensive in rural areas, owing to the vast distances and low population density. For private companies focused on the bottom line, the return on investment in these areas is often insufficient to justify the expense. Following the model of mid-20th century rural electrification programs, the federal government has attempted to make serving rural Americans with broadband more cost effective through grant and subsidy programs, but many areas remain unserved. For these areas, satellite internet is a beacon of hope.
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