The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) just released their latest Computer Usage and Ownership report on Internet usage by American farmers. They have been doing this tracking for many years and looking through the statistics in this report is a good way to get an overall picture of rural broadband since the broadband that is available to farmers is the same that is available to many other rural people who don’t live in towns.
Since most farms are rural, the picture this report paints is not pretty and is much like what you would expect. Farmers are being forced to rely on the slowest forms of broadband due to where they live.
The report says that 70% of farms now have access to the Internet, up from 62% in 2011. It’s interesting to see how farms access the Internet now vs then:
‘ 2011 2015
Dialup 7% 2%
DSL 24% 21%
Cable 7% 8%
Satellite 9% 15%
Wireless 12% 20%
Unknown type 2% 5%
Total 62% 70%
What is obvious in this numbers is that dial-up has been abandoned in favor satellite and wireless access. The wireless category ought to be clarified in future surveys because this can consist of point-to-multipoint wireless provided by a WISP or cellular data from one of the big cellphone companies. There is a huge difference between those two kinds of access and in rural areas especially, cellular data is not broadband.
I would also love to see future reports of this type look at download speeds. The picture painted is not a good one in terms of probable speed. Rural DSL is often very slow since the bandwidth delivered by DSL drops with distance. Just getting back to a lot of farm lanes would be enough to eat much of the speed out of a DSL connection and it’s very unlikely that many of these farms are sitting next to a DSLAM cabinet. Rural DSL is very regularly reported to have speeds of 1 Mbps, and often considerably less – sometimes not much faster than dial-up.
I have talked about satellite data many times. Some of the newer satellites offer faster speeds and I’ve seen reports of speeds up to 12 Mbps from satellite broadband. But there are two big problems with satellite data. A functional problem is the latency, meaning that the signal takes a long time to get to the end user due to having been bounced to and from a satellite. This latency means that real-time functions are hard or impossible to do. So this kills applications like Skype, but more importantly it kills myriad applications that require you to maintain a connection. That could be all sorts of things like gaming, logging onto an email server, or trying to buy something from a web site. It can be aggravating when a satellite connection forces you to log into applications over and over again.
The other problem with satellite data is the tiny data caps. An end user can download some small amount of data per month and there are monthly caps of anywhere from 5 gigabits to 50 gigabits, with most caps on the low end of that scale. This makes a satellite connection unusable for many of the things the rest of us take for granted like watching video or distance learning.
And then there is cellular data where the monthly caps are even smaller and it’s hard to find a plan with more than 10 gigabits of monthly download. Not only that, but cellular data is incredibly expensive at around $10 per downloaded gigabit.
What this reports shows is that, overall, the condition of broadband on farms is miserable. Not surprisingly, a large percentage of farmers have the slowest forms of connectivity. And many of these farms are multi-million dollar enterprises that could greatly benefit from better broadband. I’ve been reading about a lot of research for implementing IoT solutions at farms to micro-monitor fields to improve crop yield, and such applications are going to require bandwidth. But I guess farmers are only going to get better broadband when we figure out a way to give all rural people better broadband.