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Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011 10:33 pm

Including agriculture in the broadband plan

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This map represents current broadband availability in Illinois.
COURTESY OF BROADBANDILLINOIS.ORG

Illinois farmers have been taking a new approach to managing their crops, with a little innovation and a little assistance from their cell phones.

New mobile technology, plus the effort to make broadband coverage more available in rural areas by the National Broadband Plan of the Federal Communications Commission, is reshaping the technology scene in Illinois. However, the changes to Illinois agriculture practices have received little attention when it comes to planning the future of broadband.

Bob Flider, broadband impact director at Partnership for a Connected Illinois, a nonprofit association created by the Illinois General Assembly, says the broadband plan should include the agricultural industry in the broadband conversation, especially within Illinois.

“When you think about rural America, rural Illinois … you think about agriculture,” Flider says.

The plan currently includes a framework for increasing broadband coverage to accommodate advancing industries like health and education.  However, all industries are impacted by broadband coverage and Illinois residents of rural communities can have “endless opportunities” with faster broadband accessibility, he says.  

Andrew Elder, an equipment salesman at Central Illinois Ag, Inc., an agricultural equipment sales company, says although the agricultural industry “follows the whole model of your everyday business world,” the public image of farmers has become outdated.

“A lot of people see the farmer in the blue overalls,” Elder says. “They don’t take the industry too seriously until it affects things down the road.”

He says that with innovations like broadband coverage, farmers are now able to use applications, Internet and even texting on their phones to track the crop market from the field. This task was previously done at the start and end of the day before a farmer went out to a field, and it was more time-consuming, he says.

Farmers are also using GPS satellite technology from mobile devices to create a crop yield map, with an overlay map for fertilizing, which allows the farmer to know precisely where to apply more fertilizer. Just a decade ago, overlay maps weren’t available, he says.

 Although mobile technologies are continuing to grow each day, access in some rural areas in Illinois is still a problem, where signals can interfere with GPS use. The technology is only valuable if it’s available for use, he says.

Illinois currently ranks 11 of 54 within the U.S. and surrounding territories for broadband access, according to the National Broadband Map website. However, in Illinois, approximately 24 percent of rural residents do not have access to broadband Internet at download speeds of more than three megabits per second (Mbps), the approximate average speed, according to the Illinois Technology Partnership, a nonprofit organization that works with technology, broadband and telecommunication industry experts and consumers.

Lindsay Mosher, executive director at the Illinois Technology Partnership, says nearly
all industries are influenced by changing
technology.

However, there could be “a lack of awareness of the critical role wireless technology plays in agriculture,” Mosher says. “I think it’s something people don’t even realize is in the realm of possibilities,” Mosher says.

Flider, a former Illinois state representative, says he thinks private and public investments are important in incorporating better broadband coverage.

Although the national broadband plan didn’t include the agricultural industry in its areas of focus, Illinois has greatly improved its broadband coverage. The telecommunication act, a law which was updated in June 2010, updated regulations that were challenging investments in newer technologies like broadband, Mosher says.  

“I just think that overall it’s so important to ensure that every community, whether urban, suburban or rural, has broadband access,” Mosher says.

Contact Hannah Douglas at hdouglas@illinoistimes.com.

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