RURAL CONNECTIVITY Federal Funding Promises Widespread Broadband Coverage

By Tim Linden W hen Vice Chancellor Linda Thomas surveys the challenges facing the students at West Hills Community College in Coalinga, CA, lack of economic stability nears the top of the list. Few students can afford full-time, uninterrupted studies. They have to go to class, do homework and complete their coursework while working, taking care of family and just putting food on the table. At least those are challenges that the students have some control over. Even more frustrating to the college administrator is the technological disadvantages that these students have to navigate. “We have a crisis on the Westside (of the San Joaquin Valley),” she said. “The lack of broadband and lack of economic development hurts our community.” While on campus students do have access to the internet, but while at their homes or places of employment, it either doesn’t exist or is spotty at best. It’s difficult to get your college work done when you can’t access the internet…that’s the same internet readily available to elementary school students in urban areas throughout the country. Of course, Thomas said the lack of rural connectivity goes well beyond the impact on students. In her community, she said health outcomes also suffer as heart patients, for example, can’t utilize heart monitors, and many other patients suffer because of the inability to rely on other electronic medical devices. This is the same story across America. Rural areas are technologically underserved. Because of the open-space geography necessary for agriculture, the industry is especially hard hit. Dennis Donohue, director at the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology in Salinas, agreed that lack of connectivity on farms is a major issue as the industry moves toward developing technological solutions to its problems. For example, a great hand-held system might be developed to offer real-time measurements of many different vital inputs but if

that data can’t be accessed or transmitted because of lack of connectivity, its value is marginalized. Terry Brase, director of Farm of the Future at the very same West Hills Community College where Thomas is an administrator, revealed how difficult it is to teach new technology to tomorrow’s agricultural leaders when you are working in an environment relying on 20 th Century connectivity. In fact, for this phone interview, he had to pull over to the side of the road in an area in his rural community where he knew the cell signal would remain strong. Reiterating what Vice Chancellor Thomas had said, Brase noted that basic communication in his area is a huge challenge, let alone trying to engage his students in new precision agriculture advances. “In just the normal course of business, it is difficult to communicate with farms, offices or a home office. There just is no coverage in many areas.” He said farmers trying to upload irrigation data can’t do it. “There is only a limited amount of technology you can use out here. Exchange of data is difficult. For example, utilizing yield data or uploading video takes quite a bit of bandwidth.” Rural connectivity has been Thomas’ passion at West Hills. She has been looking for solutions and funding for several years, talking to legislators, internet service providers and local employers touting the advantage of having broadband access in the community. She has long operated under the assumption that the college district would have to pony up a good portion of the funding for any potential solution. But the cavalry is on its way. It appears that not only will the Westside of the San Joaquin Valley be connected in the next few years, so will rural communities all over the country. Connect America is a federal program launched several years ago to bring connectivity across the country with the help of federal dollars. The forces of the free market have done a relatively good job providing cell and broadband service

22   Western Grower & Shipper | www.wga.com   MAY | JUNE 2019

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