US Senate Committee meeting raises questions on speeds, needs and long term wins

RFDTV recently covered a Senate Commerce Committee that included a broadband update that seemed to cover two tricky topics, federal funding and speed goals. They used Dakota County as an example. The Committee heard from Justin Forde, the Senior Director of Government Relations at Midco who wanted to make sure that policy remained technology neutral and was concerned because other providers had received federal funding after they did for the same community. Apparently countering, Dr. Christopher Ali from the University of Virginia, seems to offer that some technologies will not meet the needs of farmers and that’s why we need to look at supply and demand. RFDTV reports

According to Forde, “A lot of farmers do not want a fiber line to the farm, they want connectivity to the entire farm. In fact, we have a farmer that has two farms, 75 miles apart. He can use fixed wireless and get connections to both of those for less than $100 dollars. The cost of running fiber to those wouldn’t be economical for us or for the federal government to serve both of those farms.”

Using a recent example from Minnesota, he explained how better agency coordination is needed to ensure federal dollars are spent wisely and where they are needed most.

“We’ve been awarded CAF 2 funding to reach areas of Dakota County in Minnesota and are fully on track for our deployment schedule, but recently we learned two other providers have been awarded CARES Act funding to serve the same areas,” Forde states. “That’s three providers awarded federal funds to serve the exact same area.”

Lawmakers also spent a significant amount of time on the question of what level of connectivity is needed.

Dr. Christopher Ali from the University of Virginia says that precision ag needs access to symmetrical 100×100 speeds.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in rural Minnesota talking to precision agriculture companies and providers; they are uploading terabytes of data and doing an incredible amount of soil analysis oftentimes in realtime, if possible if the technology is there… They need that ultra-fast symmetric upload speeds to enable them to make real-time decisions about planting,” Dr. Ali explains.

However, Forde pushed back saying that increasing the standard from 25/3 MBS to 100/100 would only reclassify some areas as unserved.

“The farms, hundreds of them in the vast agriculture area could also get over 100/20 service out in those farms surely from Midco,” Forde adds. “All of those areas, if the speed changes, would now become eligible for federal funding.”

Farmers don’t want fiber?

There’s a lot to unpack here. First the allegations that famers don’t want fiber seems strange. They certainly want fiber to the tower and I suspect they would be happy to get fiber to the farm but that costs may be a factor in their decision. One way or another they will be creating a wireless network built off a wired connection because they are doing precision agriculture, which generally means connecting lots of moving pieces. (Think of the super charged version of your kids’ various devices connecting to your home network.) And just like we’re all learning we want to best connection we can get to support those home devices, farmers feel the same.

To change or not to change broadband definitions or goals that is the question.

Dr. Ali offers that precision ag needs access to symmetrical 100/100 speeds. And according to the article, Forde pushed back saying that increasing the standard from 25/3 MBS to 100/100 would only reclassify some areas as unserved. The federal definition of broadband right now is 25/3 (25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up). The Minnesota state goals are 25/3 by 2022 and 100/20 by 2026 – but the MN Broadband Task Force is investigating whether that should be increased.

I’ve heard this reasoning in previous discussions in the Task Force meetings and other places. So again I think it’s worth unpacking. On the front lines, a user is more concerned with “do I have enough broadband” than whether they are considered served, underserved or unserved. Can I get through a telehealth visit while feeding the pigs or does my broadband drop or slow down? Can I do a zoom call while my kids are taking classes online?

Providers and policymakers care about whether someone is served/underserved/unserved because that determines where the funding goes and that helps color the maps that show how successful we are in getting everyone broadband. A mismatch in the definitions may help policymakers declare an early success – but it will be short-lived because constituents who can’t get their work done with slower (25/3) speeds will still be calling them to complain. And if it turns out that taxpayer money has been spent on broadband solutions that do not scale to higher speeds, constituents will be angry and policymakers may feel duped. The only ones who benefit from a lower speed goal are the providers who get the funding to build to lower speeds.

I’m trying to think of an analogy – the best I can do is I go to buy a dress for my daughter, she needs a size 4 and they only have a size 2. But the salesperson convinces me that this size 2 will work, because it’s sleeveless or short or (worse) made of stretchy material. Oh and I can get it on sale. So I buy the dress. My kid is excited. Big win for the mom. Until she tries it on. It simply doesn’t fit. Maybe she can cut it into a top or a skirt – she can be partially served – but at the end of the day, she can’t go to the prom in it.

Unfortunately broadband is a lot more expensive than a prom dress. We all want a win – aiming for what we need will help us reach a longer lasting win.

This entry was posted in FCC, MN, Policy and tagged , by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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