The 1920s may have been roaring for the glitzy urban crowd. But things back on the farm were still pretty quiet. That’s because rural electricity was about as rare as Google Fiber is today.
However, it was the “wiring” of rural America and the technology that came with it that literally transformed rural areas into economic and agricultural powerhouses. Now, fast forward nearly 100 years, and many say we are at another crossroads—once again, one of history and technology.
Change Looks Different. This time, the “revolution” down on the farm will not come from the “wiring” but rather the “unwiring” of the country beyond interstate exit ramps. During the past few months, a lot of talk in the news has centered on broadband infrastructure. In January, President Trump made it a centerpiece of his address at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s national convention. Even more recently, a brief discussion in the headlines focused on the government nationalizing the next-generation wireless network known as 5G.
Why is this so important? Because it’s the classic chicken-and-the-egg conundrum. The possibilities of big data and the Internet of things will continue to progress at the speed of your first dial-up modem unless real wireless broadband grows outside of its urban incubators. It’s known as the “digital divide,” and here’s the rub. This situation looks eerily familiar to the lighted cities and the darkened farms of the 1920s.
Origin Of The Digital Divide. The 1920 U.S. Census found that America was a majority urban for the first time in its history—the country had more than 50% of its population living in cities rather than rural communities.
At the start of the “roaring twenties,” just 35% of American households had electricity. By the end of the decade, nearly 68% of American homes were electrified. But, if you don’t count farms, then about 85% of Americans had electricity at the close of the 1920s.
Just like today’s digital divide, rural communities, especially farms, were far behind the curve in adopting electricity compared with the rest of the country. Of the plus or minus 6.3 million farms in 1922, only about 3% had electricity. It wasn’t until 1935 that the U.S. government began to fill this huge electrical divide between rural and urban with the formation of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA).
Today’s Solution. The odds of such a herculean government intervention to remedy this latest rural-urban disparity is highly unlikely. There just doesn’t seem to be the stomach or the resources for a federal government that’s already $20 trillion in debt. However, it doesn’t mean something big is not possible.
A solution will require some outside-the-box technologies, ideas, players and partnerships that haven’t existed in the past. Some of them are already starting to appear. Tech giant Microsoft recently laid out a bold strategy to eliminate the rural broadband gap within five years.
The company seeks to leverage a technology called TV white space, the now unused portion of the frequency spectrum made available when old analog TV technology went by the wayside. That 600 MHz frequency range is sometimes called Super Wi-Fi because the signals can travel over hills and rugged terrain and even through trees and other structures that give other mainstream wireless technologies fits.
It’s also affordable, especially compared with current and even potential future cellular technology like 5G. That’s primarily because the average cell phone tower costs in the neighborhood of $250,000 to erect, and it’s lucky to cover a five-mile radius in rough rural terrain. That may work in a densely populated, digital-hungry urban environment but is far from optimal in wide-open spaces in the nation’s heartland and beyond.
Call To Action. It is time for rural America and all of its stakeholders to realize what is at stake if this opportunity and moment are squandered. Why don’t the commodity associations and organizations and others use their clout and their checkoffs to “own” a nationalized rural broadband network? REA was a cooperative concept that farmers embraced. It treated them well. Why not put a modern spin on it and invest in something that sets the stage for the next agricultural revolution?
For us in rural America, we may love our solitude far away from the bright city lights. But under those lights resides our customers and our future. If we don’t focus on this basic utility, then we put our destiny at risk. Digital duct tape and baling wire aren’t going to fix this problem. And if we don’t fix it quickly, then a lot of high-tech robots and sensors may be sitting in the fence rows and will be leaving big piles of big data to rot.