Entries in Broadband Penetration (8)

Wednesday
Dec282011

Digging Deep: Palmetto Rural Looks to Bury Its Competition

When Chuck Crabtree joined Palmetto Rural Telephone Cooperative as its Director of Marketing this year, he was attracted to the co-op's commitment to broadband and advanced services like IPTV. Right now he says PRTC is making great progress towards an extensive fiber build-out that will cover most of Colleton County, South Carolina. And PRTC has been able to fund this upgrade to FTTH “without any big grants. We're mostly doing it ourselves, utilizing business loans,” Crabtree said. With many ILECs and cooperatives counting on broadband, PRTC's story may not seem like a unique one—but the provider's embrace of services like IPTV and advanced video platforms, is. According to Crabtree, PRTC is fighting “formidable competitors” like Comcast and Frontier by offering richer, dependable services through fiber. In underserved areas of the county, PRTC is the first to lay fiber and, in doing so, hopes to better serve its entire territory.

Crabtree characterized PRTC's service area as a combination of Low Country rural lands and small- to mid-sized towns. “Currently we've completed roughly 15% of our fiber build-out, but the overall fiber-to-the-home plan will take longer,” he said. “It's a lot of work. They don't call us the Low Country for nothing— we have a lot of wetlands and it can be very swampy, but we're absolutely committed to getting fiber to every home, even the most remote areas.”

Of course, fiber builds can be tricky for smaller companies and co-ops, with cost often exceeding return on investment. But Crabtree says that PRTC has taken great measures not to just provide broadband services, but to do so with media platforms that rival those from large competitors. Earlier this year, PRTC announced it was transitioning its IPTV-based video services to Alcatel-Lucent's starter pack end-to-end solution, which included the Microsoft Mediaroom 2.0 software platform. Mediaroom, created specifically for Tier 1 service providers, “helped get rid of some traditional IPTV problems, but also opens up new opportunities,” Crabtree said. “Some telcos deploy IPTV and then really aren't thrilled with what they're able to provide. But for us, Mediaroom was really a great choice for the consumer. It really is a very slick, great interface,” he said, noting that the platform makes it possible to introduce VOD, whole-home DVR, caller ID over the TV, and even remote DVR services. Right now, the co-op's IPTV services are about 10% penetrated, but Crabtree says that Mediaroom should dramatically increase marketability and will allow PRTC to “ratchet up marketing for this particular service. We're already seeing great responses, and we believe it's going to be successful.”

But for PRTC, the fiber build-out is about much more than just IPTV services alone. It's about “future-proofing,” as Crabtree put it. “The more fiber you have, the more you can do with it. Fiber-to-the-home provides almost limitless bandwidth capacity, allowing our customers to share multi-media content, watch videos on any device, and so on.” In other words, PRTC is looking to provide the bells-and-whistles that the Big Guys provide, but they plan to bring it to even the most remote areas where subscribers live and do business.

In some areas, DirecTV and Dish Network provide stiff competition, Crabtree acknowledged, but when it comes to providing the whole package of services, PRTC still maintains an edge. In Colleton County, Comcast provides TV and Internet services, but no voice service, and Frontier offers voice and broadband in small pockets of coverage. “We keep hearing rumors of improvements coming down from the Charleston area [in regard to Comcast], but right now they have a pretty standard offering. Our TV service is much richer, according to what we offer, and of course we have a whole package of services we provide.”

Crabtree noted the importance of broadband in small communities and rural areas—something that he says is threatened by recent changes to USF funding. When asked about how the Connect America fund will impact cooperatives like PRTC, Crabtree said, “We stand with everyone at NTCA and the other ILECs who have voiced their opposition to these changes. We're working fast and furious to run fiber and offer as high a service level as possible, and the cutting of USF funds hurts our efforts to do that in the fashion we'd like. We're not happy about the changes in the way they're distributing funds.”

Despite these federal battles, like most cooperatives, PRTC is committed to improving its community, Crabtree said. “We are very involved in the area, and are especially excited about the advanced services that the Colleton County Medical Center is able to offer through our broadband connection.” He explained that, in the past, the facility had to rely on its sister hospital in Charleston for difficult diagnoses, advanced technologies, and specialist services. This often included transporting patients via helicopter or a one-and-a-half hour drive. But now, in seconds, doctors at CCMC can send data to physicians in Charleston and get a detailed diagnosis right away. Doctors at CCMC are also making use of iPads to collect patient information; hospital management will soon rely on “hot boards” to streamline providers and get physicians to the hospital when demand increases, and the hospital website will offer online updates on emergency room wait times. Crabtree said, “These are super patient-friendly services and, while they've had our [PRTC's] broadband for years, they're now really expanding the utilization of its functionality.”

In addition to medical services, Crabtree said that PRTC's broadband has been “a real game-changer” for Colleton County High School and Colleton Preparatory Academy. “We offer broadband connections to each school in a way that fits their needs very well... and we partner with the local schools all the time—to sponsor athletic departments and support recreational teams. We really try to have a local presence in a variety of ways,” Crabtree said, explaining that PRTC also provides telecommunications services to the police and fire departments and sponsors fundraisers for March of Dimes. “That personal connection is really important,” he said.

One of PRTC's smaller business divisions is its wireless service, which Crabtree said is branded PRTC Wireless but also accesses one of the largest networks in the country. PRTC has offered wireless for the last 2-3 years and hopes to more aggressively promote “a quad play in the future,” Crabtree said. “It's not an easy business to grow in, but we're doing it, slowly but surely.”

As for the regional area surrounding PRTC's base in Walterboro, South Carolina—the county seat of Colleton County—there is plenty of growth to go around. PRTC's service area sits outside the main competitive markets of the Charleston area, but the county enjoys growth from nearby economic expansion. Early this month a new aerospace company, Colleton Aerospace LLC, announced it would construct a $15m plant in the county, bringing 300 jobs to the area and hopefully spurring development in the Low Country. PRTC is already scheduled to be the telecommunications supplier to Colleton Aerospace, and Crabtree noted that this was just one of the ways that the area is continuing to see growth in jobs, residential expansion, and population increases. Recently Boeing opened a new facility in North Charleston and tire manufacturers Bridgestone, Continental, and Michelin have all made significant investments in the surrounding area. Likely this growth will spill into PRTC's service area, and Crabtree says the company has already been active in Charleston media markets. “We can't help but think our region's growth will help us, and we hope to enjoy some of its success.”

Sunday
Dec112011

Cultivating Broadband: Group Works to Connect Kentucky


In a recent opinion piece on the ever-provocative Huffington Post, writer Timothy Karr declared “America's Internet—Now as Good as Angola's!” Hyperbole? Of course. But according to the U.S. Department of Commerce's “Exploring the Digital Divide” report, released last month, some states are just not living up to their connectivity potential. Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, and New Mexico have the dubious distinction of being the five worst states for broadband adoption—with percentages of 55%, 52%, 58%, 51%, and 58%, respectively. Overall, the average broadband penetration rate for the entire U.S. is about 65%. But in the bluegrass state, the public-private partnership ConnectKentucky has been working since 2002 to address the state's need for broadband—taking a county-level holistic approach to promote “a statewide technology acceleration program.” The vision for ConnectKentucky started out in response to the Kentucky Innovation Act of 2000; it has since become a national model for broadband deployment and the basis for the Broadband Data Improvement Act, which was funded as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

According to ConnectKentucky's Executive Director René True, the Commerce Department report is an accurate portrayal of what is occurring in Kentucky. The lower rates are mostly due to the state’s rural nature and relatively low per capita income. As a result, True believes that ConnectKentucky needs to work on “a project-by-project basis,” in order to tap into the potential of wireless broadband and design networks that fit individual community and county needs.

It would be an understatement to say that ConnectKentucky has its hands in nearly every rural town and county in the state; in fact, in many of those areas, ConnectKentucky has led wireless broadband initiatives by mapping broadband gaps, assisting with wireless network design, drafting requests for proposals, and overseeing broadband network build-outs. True explained that ConnectKentucky is an organization that targets unserved and underserved areas, then works to bring broadband to those communities.

Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, ConnectKentucky is able to suit broadband services to the needs of individual areas. In some cases, that means going with AT&T (NYSE:T) or Windstream (NasdaqGS:WIN) for network build out, but often the group works with providers who are already in place in those areas, such as Altius Communications, Q-Wireless, KY Wi-Max, and Foundation Communications. According to True, “Connect Kentucky has been involved with some of the smallest broadband communications players serving rural Kentucky.” In fact, he said, “from a pure deployment of services to rural unserved areas, ConnectKentucky is much more likely to be talking with small local companies rather than bigger multi-state companies.”

One such initiative includes “Coal to Broadband”—an innovative project that is funded by a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) and matching multi-county coal severance funds. ConnectKentucky oversees the initiative by providing technical assistance and project management, from conducting research and public awareness campaigns to assisting with network design proposals. This September the group announced it had selected wireless broadband provider Altius Communications for Coal to Broadband's ConnectBELP network build out; the fixed wireless microwave network will connect Breathitt, Estill, Lee, and Powell counties in eastern Kentucky. “The sparse population and rugged topography of the four counties make it difficult for residents to receive broadband services were it not for a public/private partnership,” True said. He also noted that “original funding amounts from ARC and Kentucky Department for Local Development coal severance grants totaled $630,600.”

In other counties of the state, ConnectKentucky has worked to secure broadband for a seven-county region of the state in the ConnectGRADD project. At the outset Daviess, Hancock, Henderson, McLean, Ohio, Union, and Webster counties had next to no broadband access, particularly in the most rural areas. The rolling hills and sparse population made the regions unappealing to larger providers and traditional wired broadband, but it was a perfect proving-ground for wireless broadband. The seven constituent county governments asked ConnectKentucky to assist them in finding vendors who would build a network reaching nearly 100% of households and businesses. The completed network coverage included nearly 100% of existing industrial parks, more than 93% of residences, and offers free wireless hotspots for public use. According to True, “The ConnectGRADD project is serving over 1,800 customers, starting from a zero base.”

Danville-based KY Wi-Max was the local broadband provider of choice for ConnectKentucky's project in Washington County, and True recently said that Glasgow-based South Central Rural Telephone Cooperative plans to team with Windstream to build broadband networks affecting small portions of Warren County.

In addition to a county-by-county approach, ConnectKentucky also assists in bringing broadband to individual towns. Such was the case in Prestonburg and Williamstown, where local cable providers didn't reach outside town limits and residents were left without broadband services. With a fixed wireless broadband system now in place, not only do rural residents surrounding Williamstown enjoy broadband connectivity, but Grant County now has a 94% broadband footprint, up from 58%.

Each of these wireless broadband initiatives echo the competitive growth rates our own Richelle Elberg predicted back in November. She wrote that, in the next few years, “we think the wireless substitution factor and higher overall penetration [will] force wired broadband connections into a slow decline. Admittedly wireless isn’t a perfect solution for all broadband applications, but on the other hand, it’s likely to get better and it’s mobile.” For certain rural areas, of course, wireless broadband is the most cost-effective and the most practical in terms of infrastructure build out—and one can't help but note how partnerships between local providers, national providers, city governments and other municipalities are becoming the norm in areas like rural Kentucky.

But does build out always equal adoption? It seems every broadband penetration study notes that those who aren't connected don't necessarily want to be, nor do they feel that broadband is useful to them. In these cases, True said changing the adoption rate is going to require showing the relevancy of broadband, providing it affordably and increasing technology literacy. “It’s going to require real grass-roots, community-level efforts,” he said.

For ConnectKentucky, such grass-roots efforts are manifest through public relations campaigns and community involvement projects. True noted ConnectKentucky's Computers 4 Kids program, which “brings together public and private partners to help disadvantaged children and their families join the Information Age.” He said that the program has “successfully placed over 3300 computers and other technology with disadvantaged kids and families, not-for-profit after school programs, community centers, libraries, and schools.” These computers and the (hopefully) accompanying broadband availability is crucial to areas of Appalachia, True said. “Without broadband availability, rural communities will fall further behind economically, educationally, and from a total quality of life view.”

As an example of a community-specific technology development program, True also mentioned the work accomplished through ConnectKentucky's Connect Equestrian View initiative. Focused on the Equestrian View neighborhood—a low-income area of eastern Kentucky—this project not only brings hardware like computers and printers to disadvantaged families, but also “subsidizes up to six months of broadband access, technology training and other technology resources to increase access, adoption, and use of technology by residents,” according to True. The project is a partnership with the Kentucky Housing Authority, Lexington Housing Authority, and Lexmark.

While ConnectKentucky's community involvement doesn't necessarily provide a monetary return-on-investment or follow a typical business strategy, it does work on closing the broadband gap in its own way—by addressing unserved and underserved areas and, at least for a time, providing opportunities for residents to see broadband's potential. For True, this is central to ConnectKentucky's overall mission to foster broadband growth in the state through an abundance of partnerships, all with varying but complementary goals. True calls broadband “the killer app” for rural areas and hopefully, for ConnectKentucky and all its partners, their efforts will be enough to one day deem Kentucky “broadband's most improved.

Thursday
Nov172011

From Appalachian Stereotypes to Broadband Connectivity

Transforming a Region: Horizon Telcom Partners to Connect Appalachia

In nearly every study conducted on broadband penetration rates, one region of the U.S. is consistently listed as behind the times—Appalachia. Still, despite its debilitating stereotypes and rambling topography, some areas of the region are quietly growing with industry, education, scientific research, and health care. But none of these sectors can thrive without broadband availability, a fact that inspired Ohio Congressman Zach Space to advocate for widespread connectivity in the region. Space collaborated with other smaller broadband advocacy groups in the area and, after several years, Connecting Appalachia finally found public and private sector support to make it a reality. Construction of the middle-mile project began this spring, thanks to combined funding from the NTIA and Chillicothe, Ohio-based Horizon Telcom. Many other organizations, businesses, academic institutions, and healthcare providers joined the effort, and as Brooke Eiselstein, public relations specialist for Horizon, describes it, Connecting Appalachia is “a testimony to partnership.”

The project is also a testimony to perseverance. Originally, Eiselstein said, Horizon Telcom worked with Congressman Space and a group of consultants to obtain an NTIA Broadband Technology Opportunity Program grant that would be a last-mile network. “We wanted every person in Southeast Ohio to receive broadband,” Eiselstein said. “Our grant was denied. They didn't find it practical to fund a broadband network that would carry aerial fiber several miles out to the middle of nowhere when only three houses could get it, and who's to say they [these residences] would even sign with us?”

Eiselstein said they re-grouped and “wrote the grant a second time, although this time we were asking for money to build the network to only the middle mile consortium. This entailed hanging fiber on existing utility poles all down major highways to hit large businesses, K-12s, colleges, hospitals, health care entities, government agencies, MARCS [multi-agency radio communication system] towers, and industrial parks.” The NTIA then agreed to fund 70% of the $100m middle-mile project, and Horizon stepped in to pick up the remaining 30%. The group was formally awarded the grant on August 18, 2010, and they will have exactly three years to have the 10MB synchronous connection network up and running.

But the process of securing funding was just one aspect of Connecting Appalachia's evolution. In many ways, the project is a mosaic of smaller, local efforts, starting with three hospitals that came together and decided they needed a broadband network for health care in southeastern Ohio. “Adena, O’bleness, and Holzer [the hospitals] joined together to form the Southern Ohio Health Care Network, and received a grant for $18 million from the FCC,” Eiselstein said. “Later, Horizon was awarded the contract to construct the network.” News of their efforts spread, and soon, Eiselstein said, local districts came together with Congressman Space to “develop a vision for what would become Connecting Appalachia.”

Eiselstein said that the project enjoyed a lot of press in local, regional, and even national press, and as a result their list of partners is quite extensive: the three lead healthcare providers; educational partners across the state; several state government agencies and the Appalachian Regional Commission; federal groups including the FCC, USDA, NTIA, and BTOP; local development districts; and Connecting Appalachia's consultants, Reid Consulting Group.

Such a wide variety of early partnerships paved the way for a larger broadband backbone, while also ensuring a customer base. Eiselstein said, “While we were writing the grant we had to identify 592 Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs). However, many of those customers needed services 'now' (then) and have already signed with other providers. Some have signed monthly contracts so they can switch providers after the network is built.” 

Before the BTOP grant was awarded, Eiselstein said, “We were awarded the Southern Ohio Healthcare Network grant. This allowed us to connect all rural hospitals in 13 counties. Most of these have already been connected. Now, the BTOP grant allows us to connect another 21 counties, totaling 34.”

When asked about cost and Horizon's concerns for return-on-investment, Eiselstein said “absolutely” the group will bring in new customers, adding, “We have to keep in mind that the grant was awarded because Appalachian Ohio has been left behind in regards to technology. This area has suffered because of the lack of broadband, and this was a great opportunity for Horizon to continue its 116-year tradition of providing good service to its neighbors. Horizon cares about putting Appalachian Ohio on equal footing with other areas of the state.” In order to elevate the area's residents and provide more advanced opportunities, Eiselstein said, “It truly is essential that a fiber optic network be built that would provide world-class, high speed Internet. Customers will finally be able to be on the same playing field as colleagues in more urban areas. New customers will be able to purchase internet connections, point-to-point connections, PRIs, and VOIP lines. We are also offering a business video package in many of the counties.”

As an investment opportunity for Horizon, Eiselstein underscored that the network “has the potential to reach 11m customers with up to 10GB synchronous connection. Of course we will not be reaching this many customers, but that is the potential it has.” She added that it was actually a strength for Horizon to be a small company, making it more “nimble and flexible when it comes to creating a solution-based service specific to our customers’ needs.”

Eiselstein has been an ambassador for Connecting Appalachia, tasked with “going to all the counties, joining the chambers, meeting the business owners, elected officials, mayors, commissioners, chamber executives, and so on. We go to trade shows, luncheons, and banquets. We usually have a table where we can distribute our annual reports, brochures, and giveaways that explain the project and who we are. Our response has been very positive. Everyone agrees there is not nearly enough broadband in the region.”

While the project itself will only affect the Appalachian regions of Ohio, Eiselstein notes that the broadband gap expands to other areas of Appalachia as well. “People in this region have been starving for Internet for years,” Eiselstein said. “When people see our trucks on the side of the roads hanging fiber, they immediately call into the office, or even stop to talk to the technicians about availability. The people of Appalachia are extremely excited and relieved to finally have access to Internet speeds and bandwidths that allow them to run their businesses and their lives more efficiently.”

As for the project's current phase, Eiselstein said the group has begun to construct the network's backbone, and are primarily hanging fiber on existing pole routes. A very small portion will be buried. Connecting Appalachia will be providing some last-mile connectivity to businesses. “These last mile costs are typically built into the quote for the business either in an up-front cost or amortized over the life of the contract,” according to Eiselstein. “We are also providing the last mile connection to the community anchor institutions who sign contracts for services. We are also partnering with WISPs to reach residential customers” since the BTOP grant did not fund the last-mile piece of the project.

Tuesday
Nov012011

Communications Industry Forecast 2011-2020: Broadband Connections and Market Shares

Telcos and Cablecos Battle, But Wireless Broadband Becomes a Factor by 2020

For the first time this year, we’ve added broadband connections to our 10-year forecast…given that voice service is increasingly an “app” that rides the broadband network, we felt this was appropriate. What does get murky, however, is the definition of broadband.

If you consider DSL connections, with average download speeds somewhere around 1.5 Mbps, to be broadband, then the telcos (ILECs and CLECs combined) are hanging pretty steady with the cable companies in terms of market share and connections. Using FCC reports, our own annual Phone Lines survey data, stats from the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) and public company information, we estimate that at the end of 2010 the ILECs had about 40.2m broadband connections; the CLECs, 4.3m, and the cable companies had 44.4m.

If, however, you define broadband as at least 4 Mbps (download speeds) as in the new Connect America Fund Order from the FCC, or as 3 Mbps as some prior FCC data reports have used, then the telcos would fall well behind in terms of broadband market share. Going forward we’ll no doubt need to evolve our thinking and estimates to these higher speed standards, but for the purpose of this year’s forecast, we are including all DSL connections.

Finally, we’ve included broadband wireless connections in our forecast. While the number of homes or businesses where a (for example) WiMax or LTE connection may have replaced a wired connection was very small at the end of 2010, we expect that increasingly broadband wireless solutions will lead to some level of broadband cord cutting.

First, in terms of the addressable market, we’ve combined the total number of households (including Puerto Rico and other territories) with the estimated number of business establishments nationwide (using Bureau of Labor Statistics data) to estimate the addressable market for broadband connections. From an estimated 137.4m addressable residences and business establishments at the end of 2010, we expect that figure to grow by about 0.7% annually, to 146.7m at the end of 2020.

Based on our estimate of 89m broadband connections at the end of last year, overall broadband penetration was just under 65% nationwide, up from 59.5% the year before. Looking out over the next ten years, we’re projected growth for both telco and cable broadband connections based largely on recent trends, but have also factored in overall penetration and the growing availability of broadband wireless solutions.

In the nearer term, ILECs and CLECs are expected to grow at a faster pace than cable or wireless due largely to their focus on small and mid-sized businesses, and also to the relatively strong growth being enjoyed by both AT&T (U-verse) and Verizon (Fios). By mid-decade, however, we think the wireless substitution factor and higher overall penetration forces wired broadband connections into a slow decline. Admittedly wireless isn’t a perfect solution for all broadband applications, but on the other hand, it’s likely to get better and it’s mobile. For lower end data users who aren’t streaming their video wirelessly, LTE and other wireless solutions are going to take their share.

By 2020 we believe overall broadband penetration nationwide will be 84% of the addressable market, with ILECs and CLECs controlling about 45%, cablecos controlling 40% and wireless providers grabbing just over 14%.

Tuesday
Sep202011

Tech Savvy U.S. Farms: A Promising Telecom Market?

USDA Report Details Internet Use and Availability on America's Farms

With so much attention focused on rural broadband these last few months, it's difficult to imagine why last month's “Farm Computer Usage and Ownership” report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture went virtually unacknowledged among rural telecommunications analysts. And yet, the USDA's detailed findings reveal an as-yet unsaturated sector in wireless and broadband technology: the American farm. In the last decade, the number of farms with an internet connection rose by 20%, and more than half of American farms now have access to the internet. But a closer look at the numbers reveals that, of those connected farms, only 11% connect through cable, 38% use DSL, 15% use satellite, 20% use wireless, and 11% still turn to dial-up. Availability is not equal regionally, either, with the West and Northeast enjoying the best coverage and the South suffering from the least opportunity to connect (a little more than half of farms there have computers with internet access).

For the communications provider industry, these farms represent an important “vertical” market, where clever partnerships, federal funding, and local investment can come together to meet sector-specific needs. In the next few months, I'll be taking a closer look at the ways precision agricultural and farming communications technologies are affecting the telecommunications provider industry. I'll also profile companies who are servicing these farms or expanding to provide service there, as well as farmers and other industry insiders who understand the promise of a technologically-connected agriculture sector. Then there's also the recent battle between the widespread use of GPS technology on farms and the potential interruptions from cellular service—as evidenced by the recent Lightsquared uproar we've been following.

The bottom line is that, in communities where internet connections are possible and have even become essential for agriculture, farmers are prepared to make good use of fast, reliable broadband, and they are often frustrated when DSL or dial-up are their only options. In July, RUS Administrator Jonathan Adelstein acknowledged the need to connect rural areas—farms among them—and even gave his rousing speech from a family farm in rural Iowa. Our Cassandra Heyne remarked that Adelstein's sentiments were part of a growing chorus of governmental leaders who hailed broadband as beneficial and even necessary to what I call the Rural Triumvirate: Education, Health Care, and yes, Agriculture. But too few of us in the telecom industry understand how farming communities represent an important vertical market, what they do with internet connectivity, and how investments (public and private alike) are revolutionizing an industry that's as old as this nation.

According to Mike Smith, a farmer who operates a small 40-acre farm in California, “The internet means survival to a lot of small farmers.” Smith says that he and other farmers in his area sell crops directly to customers online, adding “If you don't have a Web site, nobody's going to know about you.” Similarly, Alec Smith (no relation) says that pest control is one of the most important uses for the internet on his farm. He's able to upload pictures of diseased plants to plant specialists across the country, who email him back with suggestions on how to combat the disease or pests. In recent weeks other farmers in Oregon, Iowa, and South Carolina have attested to seemingly immeasurable uses for wireless and broadband on their farms—everything from measuring rainfall and crop fertilizer needs, to checking crop prices and trading agricultural commodity futures.

In fact, the USDA's report underscores what many in the agricultural community take for granted: that one of the keys to more productive and more profitable farming (along with successful farming communities, more broadly) is better Web access. About 40% of smaller U.S. farms are online, with 72% of the largest farms using the internet for farming technologies and farm-related business. The gap in service is a telling one, as precision agriculture technologies—many of which use internet connectivity to store and access data—are becoming the new norm and even proving essential to maintaining profitability and viability. Just this month Purdue University and Crop Life magazine published a survey of 2,500 agricultural dealerships, concluding that precision agriculture is on the rise on United States farms and stating that, in some cases, precision ag resources are now “so common place that they aren't thought of as unique anymore.” As precision technologies become more advanced, better connectivity is crucial.

When it comes to wireless, farmers are beginning to turn to their smart phones and similar mobile devices to check weather forecasts, research farm equipment before buying, get advice on pest control, and communicate with other agriculture specialists. According to PrecisionAg Editor Eric Sfiligoj, “the increasing use of iPhones and Blackberries among agricultural experts [is] one of the up-and-coming trends.” He writes that, “Based upon the evidence, the popularity of smart phones and tablets has grown substantially during the past 12 months, with multiple apps now available covering everything from commodity prices to weather reports. And more are on the way.”

Technology specialist for Crop IMS Jeremy Wilson states that “One of the most significant trends I have seen in the precision ag industry is the increased use of tablets or mobile tools.” These mobile tools allow farmers to be connected globally, even while in the cab of their tractors, so that information can be communicated in a much more timely manner. According to Wilson, “Once the equipment is connected, the sky is the limit to the new functionality that a precision ag manufacturer can design to improve the user experience for the operators.” In other words, precision ag allows the farmer to take to the field what “was once limited to the office where he had an Internet connection.”

The question that remains is what platform will farmers rely on for internet connectivity and when will these services expand to cover underserved areas? The answer likely depends on the region, the cost, the available funding, and the infrastructure already in place, which is why it will be useful to look at examples from across the country and investigate Adelstein's claim that, in rural areas, “recovery is underway.”