“We Need to Connect the Last Mile to the Last Acre”

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, questioned Midco Vice President of Government Relations Justin Forde at a hearing today about the need to expand broadband access to all Americans. Senator Fischer also highlighted the fundamental role wireless connectivity plays in utilizing precision agriculture technologies – in conjunction with wired networks.


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Following is an edited transcript of Senator Fischer’s questioning:

Senator Fischer: Broadband – and connectivity – overall is becoming essential to power modern agriculture. Farmers and ranchers are integrating under soil sensors, variable rate irrigation, high-tech ear tags for livestock, and many other technologies into their operations. To make full use of precision agriculture innovation, we need to close the gap and connect the last mile to the last acre. Producers need that connectivity that extends far past main residences. They need connectivity around farmland and ranch land, but coverage across acreage isn't possible without both wired and wireless connections. Mr. Forde, do you think that rural development broadband programs are missing an opportunity here to support producers and focus on last acre connectivity? And should we be looking to make sure USDA has the right balance of both last mile and last acre resources?

Mr. Forde: Yes, I couldn't agree more. We absolutely need to make sure that USDA is technology-neutral, right? Our farm and agricultural communities that we serve and throughout the Midwest — you know, we are simply not having fiber wires dragged behind combines, right? They will not be delivering that service to pastures, right? It is important that it's technology neutral, future-proofs that for the future of the ag technology. Wireline won't always be the future, right? It's a wireless world that we live in. So, I appreciate your efforts to try to focus the technology that the ag community wants and needs for the future, so that technology they have is also future-proof for the acre.

Senator Fischer: Yeah, I appreciated your comments about the vastness of rural America and really sparsely populated areas. You forgot to mention Nebraska and the Nebraska Sandhills, especially where we're from. And, with less than one person per square mile, it is important to be able to get to that last acre.

Mr. Forde: That's why I think the Rural Internet Improvement Act that you and Senator Klobuchar have sponsored, along with Senators Thune and Lujan, will be so important to really focus on those last unserved areas in the Sandhills and make sure that those people get broadband first and are first in line before other people are getting two or three or four bites at the apple, so to speak, right? We need to make sure that they get that service out there. And we need to do that as fast as possible. In some of those areas, you might have an eight- or nine-mile-long driveway, right? And, at $50,000 or 60,000 bucks a mile, that may take years to deploy a wireline service. And, if we can quickly and efficiently deploy a wireless service that's fast and reliable in the middle of winter, let's get that done. And let's get that person service tomorrow.

Senator Fischer: … I noticed, Mr. Forde, that there's been a lot of talk about using federal broadband programs to future-proof networks. But that term is not in any statute. Can you tell the Committee what you think that means and whether your networks are future-proof?

Mr. Forde: Yeah, I think we will continue to invest to make sure all of our customers, rural customers, have the latest and greatest technology. And we would not build a system, whether that be fiber, HFC, or fixed wires, that is not future-proof, right? They are all scalable. They are all made for the future of those residents. Nobody's building any networks today that aren't— 

Senator Fischer: When it comes to farmland and ranch land, how do you future-proof that connectivity across acreage?

Mr. Forde: Yeah, you got your multiple forms of technology out there ready to serve that agriculture customer in the way that they want, right? If a farmer calls and says they want their drain tile pump connected, their grain dryer, and their water pumping station, right? We would need to be able to take care of that issue today, right? It's simply unfeasible to run wires to locations that farmers might not even know where they need tomorrow.

Senator Fischer: And we're talking about rural development and being able — I view that as strengthening rural America, to be able to have that development. It begins and ends with agriculture, in my opinion. No matter the state you're in. Agriculture, in rural environments, is vital, not just to those rural communities that they're near, but it's vital for the states themselves, and especially when you have big states there.

Mr. Forde: It's such an exciting area. All the development in ag tech is just tremendous, and we're excited to be a part of that ecosystem

Senator Fischer: I am, too. I'm excited for this Farm Bill and looking at precision agriculture and making sure we have the connections there to have it work for everybody. So, thank you very much. 

Mr. Forde: Thank you.