According to the Benton Report entitled The Future of American Farming, nearly 60% of U.S. farmers and ranchers do not believe they have adequate internet connectivity to run their businesses. 

Some of the major barriers to a quality Internet experience include slow internet speeds (21%), high costs (20%), and unreliable service (16%). The state of broadband in communities surrounding the farms is not much better. 

According to the report – and unbeknownst to many non-rural people – “about 90 percent of all farmers earn most of their household income from off-farm sources. Even midsize-farm operators earn about a third of their income from off-farm sources.”        

Spouses of farmers are employed in non-agricultural jobs ranging from tending bar, financial services, self-employment, healthcare, and nonprofits. Improving broadband is key to the economic ecosystem that supports both farmers and the towns. Broadband can bring remote work opportunities to the farm and all kinds of jobs downtown, which means money everywhere. 

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a Department of Commerce agency, is responsible for the $65 billion broadband portion of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). 

NTIA recently closed off a broadband grants program for minority colleges that could be a blueprint for a new way of serving all of the rural communities. 

A Holistic Approach to Broadband 

“It was Congress’s intent to use this grant program as a test, a way to foster innovation and innovative approaches, creating programs we may not have thought of,” said Scott Woods, director of NTIA’s Office of Minority Broadband Initiatives, on Gigabit Nation. “Let’s see how we can think outside of the box, push the envelope, and replicate our successes.”

Typically broadband programs are siloed, each just on infrastructure, digital training and literacy, schools, libraries, etc. Here, NTIA went for a more holistic approach. For example, a college could propose a one-time capital investment into infrastructure that expands its current broadband capabilities and connectivity. Otherwise, they can purchase or lease eligible equipment and devices for students’ in-person or remote education at the colleges.

NTIA encouraged colleges to creatively build a 15-mile broadband radius. “If census tracks within the radius do not exceed 250% of the poverty threshold, NTIA can fund digital inclusion access, broadband subscriptions, and digital programming, plus hiring and training IT personnel to use the technology,” says Woods. “Colleges could implement these activities themselves, or partner with a minority business enterprise, or a tax-exempt 501 C3 organization.”

NTIA seeks to fund soup-to-nuts plans that add a variety of digital elements that all rural communities need. Their move to break down the silos of deployment hopefully will curb the politics of “just good enough,” that process of making just enough broadband progress to make politicians happy, but not enough for long-term or ongoing success. 

The soup-to-nuts approach can work at the state level as well. Benton reports that Tennessee’s broadband grant program awards additional points for applicants that encourage adoption and community involvement through activities such as digital literacy training, low-income assistance programs for equipment and/or broadband service, and awareness campaigns. Priority in scoring is given to rural and distressed communities. Tennessee allows applicants to adapt their community engagement strategies to local conditions.

Black Farmers Are Still Fighting for Equity

You can’t talk about how broadband can help farmers without acknowledging how the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a main federal funding source of rural broadband, has been complicit in perpetuating policies discriminating against Black farmers. 

By USDA’s own numbers, Black farmers in America went from nearly 1 million in 1920 to fewer than 50,000 today

Since the Civil War, the USDA has systematically denied Black farmers access to critical farm programs and ignored civil rights claims. The Biden Administration has earmarked billions of USDA dollars, much of which could go to broadband and other technologies. Together with NTIA’s IIJA, Black farmers should move closer to funding parity and digital equity.

Minority-operated farms face lower rates of Internet connectivity. The Benton report showed that only 82% of farms have Internet service of any type. On average, 70% of Hispanic-operated farms, 66% of American Indian or Alaska Native-owned farms, and 62% of Black-owned farms have Internet access.

New research from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies shows similar inequities and challenges facing the rest of Black communities. In the Black Rural South, 62% of all African Americans lack access to affordable broadband. It’s under-reported and probably worse because FCC data overestimates broadband availability.

The depth of generational poverty makes affordability a challenge. “Now, 49% of Black children live in poverty, compared to 18% of White children in the region,” said Dominic Harrison, Ph.D., director of Technology Policy of the Joint Center. 

”We still have lower wages, schools are not doing well, hospitals have left, companies have chosen to develop and grow their business elsewhere, which collectively makes the digital divide such a prominent issue here.”

Dr. Harrison‘s report makes several important recommendations. “There must be equity at the center of this IIJA legislation and its implementation across the U.S.,” she said. “Regulators need to require ISPs to offer affordable, full-featured options to low-income households. Right now IIJA has a $30 broadband subsidy but it may not be enough and needs to be permanent. We must prohibit the practices of digital redlining as well as repeal legislation in some states that prevents communities from offering their own public broadband.”

IIJA is passed, but for the next eight months, the actual NTIA rules that govern the grant program will be written and there’s going to be a lot of lobbying by the big incumbent ISPs. Communities have to come together and make a righteous noise so that these recommendations are adopted. The bottom line is – digital equity is good for all of us.          

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