In the cloud era, digital connectivity is clearly a necessity. Yet many rural communities across the U.S. still lack this necessity, including farmers, who are the country’s backbone. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data, approximately 60 percent of American farmers don’t have sufficient broadband access to run their business, while 25 percent have no Internet access of any kind.
Farmer-owned cooperative Land O’Lakes is determined to change that statistic by working with other organizations and government agencies to bring broadband to rural communities. Land O’Lakes is the founder of the American Connection Project, or ACP, which consists of 150 organizations leading various efforts from advocating for investment in rural broadband to promoting long-term digital inclusion of underserved communities.
I recently spoke with Teddy Bekele, chief technology officer at Land O’Lakes, about connectivity challenges in rural communities and how ACP is addressing these networking challenges. Highlights of my ZKast interview, done in conjunction with eWEEK eSpeaks, are below.
ACP focuses on three key areas:
- Awareness: The goal is to lead open conversations about the lack of broadband in rural communities. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates roughly 18 million Americans lack access, whereas Land O’Lakes believes that number is closer to 50 million in rural areas.
- Advocacy: The focus here is getting other organizations to become advocates for rural broadband-related policies. ACP formed the American Connection Project Policy Coalition with more than 170 organizations spanning different industries.
- Action: The organization works with technology partners to propagate wireless signals in areas that lack connectivity. ACP also has fellows taking action in their own rural communities as part of an initiative called American Connection Corps.
Ending The Digital Divide
The following are a sample of key points from our discussion:
- Despite technological advancements in the U.S., the digital divide still exists for several reasons. Placing fiber in rural areas is not economical for wireless providers due to challenging terrains, including lakes, forests, and mountains. Households are spaced miles apart, which means putting fiber down can cost on average $40,000 a mile.
- On the federal, state, and local end, different states are at different levels of maturity. Private companies are stepping in and offering expertise through public-private partnerships with the USDA and the FCC. Part of the cost of deploying broadband is requiring tall infrastructure, which private companies can provide.
- Land O’Lakes started ACP before COVID-19. However, the pandemic further emphasized the digital divide between rural and urban communities. Farmers without Internet access couldn’t run their businesses remotely. Students couldn’t participate in distance learning. Telemedicine wasn’t accessible to people with medical needs. All these issues were amplified during COVID-19 and accelerated ACP’s efforts.
- Since the start of the pandemic, ACP has worked with partners—including tech giants HP and Microsoft—to place antennas on towers. It’s also working with retailers like Tractor Supply Company to enable public Wi-Fi access in store parking lots across the country, providing visitors with privacy and social distancing in their vehicles. Additionally, ACP created an interactive map to help people find their nearest Wi-Fi access points.
- One vendor that greatly contributed to ACP’s cause is Aruba, a wireless networking subsidiary of HP. Aruba supplied remote networking capabilities for wireless infrastructure. Most of the heavy lifting was done from ACP’s central headquarters in Arden Hills, Minnesota. ACP was able to monitor, make adjustments, and work with people locally using Aruba solutions.
- Earlier this year, Land O’Lakes launched the American Connection Corps, to give back directly to local communities. Fifty-two fellows recently graduated from the program and returned to their hometowns to serve as rural broadband evangelists. The program has been so successful across 12 states that ACP is considering a second round of fellows.
- What’s next for ACP? As farmers and communities around them become more technologically advanced, they will need help running equipment remotely. ACP wants to bring more tech capabilities to these communities, unlocking new opportunities once broadband becomes available to all.