Weekly Column

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Last May, Bruce and I had the privilege of hosting Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue at our family ranch in Cherry County. Secretary Perdue joined us and more than 60 of our friends and neighbors for a roundtable discussion. During the meeting, I asked everyone to take out their cell phones and check to see if they had service. Few did. Unfortunately, lack of internet access – on our cell phones, in our homes, and in our communities – is a real problem for rural Americans, because access is a basic necessity for doing business and staying in touch.

Within a few short decades, innovations have transformed our economy and daily lives. New technologies continue to increase internet connectivity, and not just to your desktop computer. Our tablets, mobile phones, thermostats, wearable fitness devices, cars, street lights, classrooms, doctors’ offices, pastures, paddocks, corn fields, and manufacturing plants are all part of a growing list of internet-connected infrastructure. This connectivity enables us to modernize healthcare services, improve education accessibility, accelerate emergency communications, reduce energy use, streamline business costs, increase agricultural productivity and so much more.

Many urban and suburban areas have been able to utilize many of the benefits of internet accessibility more quickly than other parts of the country. We need to make sure our harder-to-reach rural communities are not left behind in a digital era. There is no stronger example of the benefits of innovation than the influence of internet access on the agriculture industry. Today’s rural areas are experiencing increased productivity because of advanced technologies fueling U.S. agricultural growth. However, many producers still lack access to basic internet and broadband infrastructure, leaving them at a competitive disadvantage.

Late last year, I hosted an “Agriculture and Internet of Things” roundtable to communicate ideas on the needs of modern agriculture among farming, ranching, technology, and telecommunications stakeholders. A key point made during that discussion was the need for high-speed internet connectivity on farms and ranches. In production agriculture today, it is critical for our Ag producers to make use of new, connected devices.

Farmers use embedded sensors to collect and transmit data on crop yields, soil moisture levels, plant health, weather conditions, and insect damage. Meanwhile, livestock producers use devices that monitor animal health, markets, and feed costs. These sensors and devices need internet connectivity to transmit enormous amounts of data, which is then analyzed for better decision making. This process, known as precision agriculture, helps our producers run their businesses more efficiently by streamlining resources and increasing productivity.

None of this data transmission or analysis is possible without sufficient broadband infrastructure. That’s why I am cosponsoring the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act. The legislation would establish a task force at the Federal Communications Commission to identify gaps in high-speed internet connectivity for America’s croplands and ranchlands. Working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the task force would promote the rapid expansion of high-speed broadband, with the goal of achieving service to 95 percent of agricultural lands by 2025.

 Given that one in four jobs in Nebraska is related to production agriculture, I believe this bill is a positive step toward deploying the broadband infrastructure that farmers, ranchers, and our rural communities need, and will go a long way toward supporting our state’s economy. I was pleased to vote for the bill’s passage in the Senate Commerce Committee, and I am committed to working to see it pass the full Senate.

 Those who live in our rural communities shouldn’t be hindered by lack of internet connectivity. For our country to continue moving forward, it is imperative that all Americans have the necessary tools and technologies to support their families and grow their livelihoods. In an energized economy, we must continue working to make modern technologies and communications accessible throughout Nebraska and across the nation.

Thank you for participating in the democratic process. I look forward to visiting with you again next week.