To keep economies growing, rural areas needs more spectrum.

A century ago, the holiday season in rural America looked vastly different. The country was in the thick of the First World War, and farms were growing and exporting crops to feed our allies in Europe – as well as families at home – as they struggled to rebuild.

During this “Golden Age,” agriculture represented 35 percent of the U.S. population in 1916, with more than 6 million farm families working the land. Today, on the cusp of 2016, less than 2 percent of workers live on their farms, yet they are still able to meet the needs of consumers at home and abroad.

Thanks to precision agriculture and other technological advancements in manufacturing and farm equipment, the United States is in the midst of yet another golden age of farming. These technologies have become critical to the welfare and continued growth of rural America and the agriculture industry that keeps it ticking.

Yet without action from the U.S. Congress, there is a distinct possibility that progress may not only slow, but stop altogether.

Many existing and emerging technologies in the farming sector and across countless other industries fall under the “Internet of Things” umbrella – a digital ecosystem of devices that rely on wireless connectivity in order to communicate with consumers and with each other.

But these devices operate on a finite resource known as spectrum that carries wireless data from one point to another over invisible airwaves. They are spread dangerously thin. Networks and wireless-dependent technologies are experiencing increasing congestion due to this spectrum shortage.

Thankfully, a solution exists, and it’s in the hands of rural America’s leaders.

The government owns as much as 70 percent of available spectrum, and much of it goes either underused or unused completely. Fortunately, the recently passed budget deal included a provision titled “The Spectrum Pipeline Act,” which would free up federally-owned spectrum to be reallocated for commercial use.

Even more promising, South Dakota Senator John Thune, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, recently authored the MOBILE NOW Act, which is advancing in the upper chamber.

This proposed law would amend the language in the Spectrum Pipeline Act, requiring the government to auction additional spectrum. The legislation also moves up the deadline for the government to identify where the next batch of spectrum would come from.

The National Telecommunications Industry Association (NTIA) – an agency under the Department of Commerce that serves as the President’s adviser on telecommunications policy – would also be given the task of evaluating whether technology used by the federal government is as efficient as possible.

Aside from bringing more resources to market that would aid precision agriculture, more spectrum also means faster and more reliable service. For a the contingent of rural America that lacks access to fixed, wireline broadband, this could be at least a partial solution to bringing rural Americans online. In turn, this means improved access to technologies best equipped to empower rural America, including telehealth, remote education and online training programs.

The author, Burton Eller.
The author, Burton Eller.

Farmers rely on wireless applications to provide critical weather, crop information and precision land applications. High speed wireless services allow rural Americans to have better access to telemedicine, educational opportunities, telebusiness, and public safety services.

But this will only be the case if Republicans and Democrats can turn words into action and pass the bill in early 2016 at the latest. The realities of a 2016 presidential election and the air it will suck up from any legislative progress is a distinct reality. Failure to act before this reality sets in means that a broadly-supported measure now may not come up again until 2017 or 2018 – meaning an entirely new Congress and president. When coupled with the fact that it takes 13 years to reallocate spectrum and bring it to market, this spells real trouble for alleviating current shortages, let alone establishing a forward-leaning path to world-class wireless networks and the economic prosperity that carries.

This is a time for members of Congress, particularly Commerce Committee members from rural states like Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Roger Wicker (R-MS), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), Steve Danes (R-MT), Joe Manchin (D-WVA) and Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), to lead on this issue.  We’ve talked about revitalizing rural America for many years.  Spectrum reallocation is powerful tangible tool rural America needs.  Let’s get on with it.

Burton Eller is Legislative Director at the National Grange.

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