But there is a problem: Rural areas have consistently lagged behind urban areas in broadband access. While virtually all Americans (99%) now have access to broadband Internet connections, broadband adoption rates among the country's nearly 60 million rural residents is lower than among urban residents. Although the U.S. leads the world in adoption of high-speed 4G/LTE wireless broadband, and rural communities are benefiting from the expansion of these networks nationally, a gap remains between rural and urban coverage.
According to a 2014 study published by the PCIA, "network investment has been concentrated in metropolitan markets mainly because these markets have higher population density [while] investments in rural markets would cover far fewer customers and have higher fixed costs per customer." This logic makes sense if the only thing that is being connected is people. But if farmers are wiring up their fields, potentially putting one or more sensors on each plant, a very different kind of financial equation may emerge. As the PCIA report argues, "the economic model for mobile broadband in rural areas should be based on the number of devices and connections, not simply the number of connections."
A business case for expanding broadband to rural America should recognize that the connectivity needs of a farm are distinctly different from those of a populous urban area. A tomato plant or even a cow is not likely to spend time watching YouTube videos or playing online games -- not even Farmville. A plant will need connectivity to make periodic reports on its status, but this data will not require instant connectivity or massive bandwidth. What farms will need is widespread coverage and reliable connectivity. At the same time, farmers themselves will need robust connections that will enable them to carry out the sophisticated analyses that turn the massive amounts of data they have collected into actionable information.
Urban vs. rural telecom: Think different
The differences between urban and rural usage patterns suggest that different architectures may be appropriate for different areas. For example, to fill gaps in wireless broadband service on farms, big companies like John Deere and smaller startups like Ayrstone have developed solutions based on deploying networks of wireless repeaters to expand the reach of connectivity and supplement conventional cellular coverage in farmers' fields.
New policy approaches can also help. Several states, including New York, have launched programs to expand the availability of high-speed broadband to both rural and urban residents. Proposed legislation in Iowa would provide an accelerated depreciation deduction, a tax credit and a property tax exemption for broadband infrastructure deployed in targeted rural areas.
On the federal level, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included funding to accelerate broadband deployment in rural areas. One of the goals of the Federal Communications Commission's Connect America Fund is to expand access to high-speed Internet access for rural residents.
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