Will the digital divide ever end?

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Rural Americans would like to see an end to the “digital divide”—a phrase used to describe greater availability and higher speeds of internet access in cities compared to rural areas. The term surfaced with the advent of the world wide web in the 1990s, and it remains accurate today, 10 years after smartphones were introduced. However, a growing number of providers are delivering high-speed solutions to rural customers.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, broadband commonly refers to a high-speed internet connection that’s always on and faster than 25 megabits per second download and three Mbps upload. Wireless speeds vary, cable usually only serves towns, and faster options like DSL and fiber-to-the-home are rare in rural places. The most remote areas still depend on more expensive, less reliable satellite coverage.

Residents of Parsons, Kan., got lucky when Galen Manners moved back home. He worked in the cellular industry before returning to the family farm to grow wheat, corn and soybeans. Seventeen years ago, he launched Wave Wireless, and today the company provides wireless broadband internet to 2,500 customers via 22 radio transmitter sites.

“I couldn’t get broadband at my home, so I built my own small network,” Manners said. “My neighbor asked to join in, then my cousin, and it grew from there.”

Until Wave Wireless arrived on the scene, residents of Labette County could only access painfully slow dial-up internet service from landline phone companies.

“Before we got Wave Wireless, our internet service was terrible,” said Mark Gilpin, who raises cattle and row crops near Parsons. “Galen does a good job; his service is excellent.”

Gilpin, who subscribed to Wave Wireless about 12 years ago, uses the connection to check cattle and feed prices, search for bargains on Craigslist and read news on media sites. His wife, Rhonda, uses it to conduct research and communicate as part of her job teaching nursing at a nearby community college.

In addition to farmers, Wave Wireless serves small-town residents, schools and agribusinesses like Parsons AGChoice, an MFA Incorporated location where Manners and Gilpin purchase supplies. Along with his role as president of Wave Wireless, Manners continues to farm and uses broadband to download weather, market prices and other ag-related information.

“While the hilly terrain and lack of population make it difficult to provide broadband here, eastern Kansas is fairly well served by a number of small wireless providers,” said Manners, who heads up a team of eight Wave Wireless employees, including his wife, Sandy. “We don’t compete head-to-head with the big companies that focus on cities. Our primary goal is serving rural customers.”

The FCC’s 2016 Broadband Progress Report found that “while the nation continues to make progress in fixed and wireless broadband deployment, many Americans still lack access to advanced, high-quality voice data, graphics and video offerings, especially in rural areas.”

With its small towns, hilly geography and water features, MFA country falls into the territory that is difficult to serve by internet providers. A study released in 2016 by the Strategic Networks Group and the Rural Telecommunications Congress found that Missouri ranks close to the bottom among all states in terms of its efforts to provide broadband access, and Arkansas rates only slightly better. Kansas lands a bit below average. Iowa scores 10th in the nation—the best among MFA states.

In April, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens announced $45 million in funds for a program that will enable every public school in the state to build the infrastructure for high-quality internet access. Newly appointed Missouri Director of Agriculture Chris Chinn said she is also placing priority on getting higher-speed internet into the state’s rural areas “so Missouri farmers and ranchers can fully utilize the technology at their fingertips.”

“Attracting the next generation back to the farm has been, and always will be, important to me,” said Chinn, a fifth-generation farmer from Clarence, Mo. “To do that, we must protect the integrity of agriculture and invest in rural communities. Better internet makes for better, more productive farms, schools and hospitals, and growth in rural communities equates to growth across the state.”

Broadband’s big boys such as AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink and Charter typically focus on urban areas such as St. Louis and Kansas City. That’s why Wave Wireless and hundreds of smaller, independent providers are needed to help fill the gap in rural America, where sparse populations fail to attract larger players.

Electric and telephone cooperatives have also entered the high-speed internet market, true to their grassroots mission of serving their members.

“Missouri is a hotbed of activity by electric co-ops extending fiber to the home,” said Rob West, executive vice president of rural infrastructure at CoBank, which provides more than $4 billion in loans to U.S. telecom systems and $10 billion to electric co-ops. “One of our customers, Co-Mo Electric Cooperative, has been a leader in showing that providing fiber to rural homes and businesses can succeed.”

Co-Mo shows you can deliver

Co-Mo Electric sets an example for others, West said, offering wholesale broadband service to United Electric Cooperative of Savannah Mo., Barry Electric Cooperative of Cassville, Mo., and other co-ops as far away as Virginia. And Co-Mo Electric succeeded without government assistance, which is used by many broadband providers to bring high-speed service to rural places.

In 2010, Co-Mo Electric Cooperative surveyed its 24,000 consumer-members and found pent-up demand for high-speed internet. While some had access through smartphone providers, the only other options were dial-up or satellite service. More than 300 letters of support came in from homes, businesses, schools and medical facilities. However, the co-op’s application for federal stimulus funding was denied.

“It was hard to tell our members that we weren’t going to offer broadband after all,” said Co-Mo Electric’s CEO, Ken Johnson. “We looked at wireless, but we serve rough terrain with hills and trees in central Missouri, and wireless isn’t the best solution. With fiber, we can serve everyone.”

Co-Mo’s member-elected board of directors approved a fiber-to-the-home pilot project in one of the cooperative’s most populated areas based on signing up a targeted percentage of customers.

“We took a page out of the playbook from when co-ops first brought electricity to rural America,” Johnson said. “We spread the word through meetings, newsletters, press releases and social media. As the deadline neared, we went door to door.”

At a meeting near Lake of the Ozarks, a local banker offered to pay the $100 sign-up fee for bank customers, Johnson said.

“Pandemonium broke out as people rushed to the registration table,” he said. “We signed up enough people to meet our goal.”

The pilot succeeded, and the board approved three more phases to connect the co-op’s electric consumers as well as 1,500 customers in nearby small towns, which “almost begged us to come,” Johnson said.

While a town might host 35 to 50 consumers per mile of line, Co-Mo Electric serves an average of just 7.8. Fiber-to-the-home is generally the most expensive way to deliver broadband, and tough terrain makes every mile more expensive. But the board remained committed.

“When kids go off to college, it’s hard to get them to come back without the quality of life that comes with broadband,” Johnson said.

Co-Mo Electric extended fiber to some of its substations to install remote control systems and assure electric reliability. The distribution co-op partnered with its wholesale provider, Central Electric Power Cooperative, to expand fiber’s reach.

“We have a total of 4,000 miles of distribution line, and we built 3,000 miles of fiber,” Johnson said. “By the end of 2016, our subsidiary, Co-Mo Connect, attracted 14,500 subscribers—mostly residences. Of those offered the service, half opted to take it, and we will continue to grow.”

CoBank and CFC, another cooperative that finances rural electric and telecom systems, provided $80 million in loans. Johnson said he expects the project to break even in seven or eight years.

“It took a lot of work, since no electric co-op had ever done this before,” he said. “We hit the market at the right time when interest rates were low.”

Johnson shares a couple of examples of how high-speed broadband has helped boost the local economy. Before Co-Mo Connect, a local gunstock manufacturer turned away business because he could only afford to activate his satellite connection to take orders for certain hours each day. With his fiber connection on 24 hours a day, he can now take more orders and business has grown.

In another case, a call center planned to move from Lake of the Ozarks to Kansas City, but Co-Mo Connect’s affordable broadband saved those 40 local jobs.

Telecom steps up

In addition to the electric co-ops, telecommunications companies continue to upgrade rural internet services.

“Progress is steadily being made to deploy rural broadband deeper into rural Missouri and increase broadband speeds,” said Ric Telthorst, president and CEO of the Missouri Tele-communications Industry Association, which represents three dozen small, community-based telecoms.

Telthorst cited NEMR Telecom, a co-op in northeast Missouri, as an example of a small cooperative delivering fiber-to-the-home. Jim Sherburne, CEO of NEMR Telecom in Green City, Mo., said that 88 percent of co-op members who have been offered fiber broadband have taken the service.

“We serve a very rural area where most farmers raise cattle, corn and soybeans,” Sherburne said. “A grant from the Universal Service Fund allowed us to offer high-speed broadband.” The fiber project is 75 percent complete and will wind down by 2020.

The Universal Service Fund is collected from U.S. telecommunications companies and offered through the Federal Communications Commission to support increased availability of telecommunications services throughout the country. Over the years, subsidies have been updated to support not only traditional voice telephone service but also high‑speed broadband. In addition to this funding, many providers benefit from other federal and state grant programs designed to bring high-speed service to rural places.

“Everyone thinks they deserve fiber to the home, but in reality it’s difficult to deliver high-speed everywhere fast,” West said. “It usually takes government funding.”

Telthorst listed other telcom association members that now or soon will provide high-speed broadband:

  • GRM Networks, a cooperative in northwest Missouri, recently upgraded service.
  • Granby Telephone Company, a family-owned business in southwest Missouri, is completing fiber-to-the-home.
  • CenturyLink plans to install 1,600 miles of fiber to serve more than 70,000 customers in 100 Missouri communities by year-end.
  • AT&T and Verizon are investing millions in making their networks more robust across the state, and AT&T is developing technology that would send broadband wirelessly along—not through—electric lines.

Kansas is also making progress in rural broadband access, said Colleen Jamison, executive manager of the State Independent Telephone Association of Kansas, adding that quality service requires a healthy backbone.

“A recent study showed that independent companies in Kansas spend an average of $98 million a year on capital improvements,” said Jamison, who represents 20 of the state’s 35 rural local exchange carriers. “The service can’t be adequate if towers aren’t numerous, and they often aren’t in rural areas with a population density of less than one person per square mile.”

Will rural America  always come last?

As internet service coverage continues to grow, soon CoBank’s West believes the question won’t be whether rural Americans have internet access but whether they have adequate access.

“When will we see 100 percent coverage at adequate speeds in all of America?” he asked. “Most people in rural America have access, but they want better, higher-speed access. None of the new technologies started in rural areas, and that trend will continue. Urban areas will receive 5G technology first, because that’s where the economics make sense.”

Data drives decisions on the farm 

High-speed broadband will become more crucial as farmers adopt precision farming practices that require more data, said Thad Becker, director of precision farming for MFA Incorporated. 

“The heart of MFA’s precision program is managing data that comes in from soil-sampling tests and variable-rate planting and fertilizing equipment,” Becker said. He estimates that 90 percent of farmers download this data from field equipment to a thumb drive, which is then inserted in a home computer. The farmer emails the information to MFA, and an agronomist emails back prescriptions for enhancing soil, seed and fertilizer practices.  

Each growing season, the average farmer transmits only 50 megabits each for planting and harvest and 20 for soil sampling, Becker added. Agronomy recommendations take even less memory. Any broadband mode can transfer these small amounts. 

Many farmers in MFA country use cell phones to collect information from the internet, and the majority can access 4G or other high-end cellular technologies, he said. 

“The problem is,” Becker added, “most cell providers limit the quantity of data you can upload each month.” 

Limited speeds and data limits present problems. On the MFA Nutri-Track web portal, farmers log in to a secure site to view planting and harvesting data and access precision fertilizer prescriptions. The technology works well with DSL, cable or fiber internet services but is limited over a cellular network.

“Depending on their service, a lot of growers who use cell phones to access Nutri-Track sometimes wait five minutes or more for a map to load,” Becker said. “As technology progresses, we’ll add more data, and in one or two years, farmers will bump up against data limits.”  

As the industry adopts more variable-rate technology and uses more photo and video imagery in managing crops, Becker believes farmers may require 10 to 15 times more data—or even greater. 

“The need for high-speed internet is going to keep growing as technology advances and farmers adopt more precision practices,” Becker said. “We’re seeing data drive decisions on the farm more and more every day.”

MFA network reveals the state of rural broadband 

MFA’s network of Agri Services and AGChoice locations often lie outside small towns and can’t access cable, DSL, fiber or other high-speed options, according to Eric Summers, telecom analyst for MFA Incorporated. For example, he said it took a couple years for fiber providers to get close enough to serve AGChoice in Emporia, Kan., and MFA Agri Services in Sedalia, Mo.

“Broadband providers want a return on investment, and if we’re only one of two or three customers along the highway, they can’t make a profit,” Summers said. “As a result, we use a mixed bag of broadband technology.” 

Most MFA locations use DSL, the most common, economical choice, Summers said, but he prefers fiber and cable connections for their reliability. Cellular service works, but users often experience delays when typing in data. While Summers said MFA avoids using satellite because of its high cost and poor reliability in bad weather, some locations in Missouri’s Bootheel depend on it.  The most underserved broadband areas are northeastern and southeastern Missouri, Summers explained.

Fortunately, fiber is becoming more available. CoMo Electric Cooperative in Tipton, Mo., recently delivered fiber in its area, and Summers quickly signed up MFA Agri Services there.  

Summers secures two broadband providers for every location as required by the software MFA uses; a backup assures reliability. 

“Even more than geography, aging communications infrastructure can be an obstacle to finding fast, reliable broadband,” he said. “Larger companies are updating their systems, but it is complex and costly to do so while avoiding service interruption. Smaller co-ops and telecoms tend to be younger and are in a better position to build the latest technology.”  


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