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story.lead_photo.caption The Sentinel-Record/Richard Rasmussen BRIDGING THE DIVIDE: Area Director of USDA Rural Development Steve Mosher tells the 71st annual Arkansas Farm Bureau Officers and Leaders Conference Tuesday at the Hot Springs Convention Center about federal funds available for expanding rural internet coverage. - Photo by Richard Rasmussen

More than $600 million in federal funds are available to expand rural internet coverage, money the U.S. Department of Agriculture said could help narrow the state's digital divide.

Steve Mosher, the area director for USDA Rural Development, identified broadband access as one of the state's most urgent needs, telling the 71st annual Arkansas Farm Bureau Officers and Leaders Conference Tuesday at the Hot Springs Convention Center that 80 to 90 percent of the state lacks reliable coverage.

"When I was growing up, most of our communications involved driving down the gravel road and stopping to talk to someone," he said. "Our world has changed. In order to be competitive in today's rural society you have to have internet connectivity."

Farms operating in low coverage areas are at a disadvantage, deprived of advancements that have made crop and animal production high-tech endeavors. Broadband is underpinning the transformation, enabling livestock and soil conditions to be monitored remotely and resources to be used more efficiently.

"You always wanted to build your chicken houses as close as possible to the feed mill," Mosher, relating how a poultry producer's lack of reliable internet access has made it difficult to monitor his chickens electronically, said. "Now you want to build the chicken house to make sure you have connectivity. The world has changed."

Arkansas is working to keep pace with that change. The State Broadband Plan the governor's office released in May calls for the Federal Communications Commission's 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload benchmarks for broadband to reach every area of the state with 500 or more people by 2022.

Those speeds are unavailable for more than 20 percent of the state, the plan said, with 641,000 people unable to access broadband through a wired internet connection. A quarter of the state, or 721,000 people, are served by only one wired internet provider, and almost 10 percent, or 251,000 people, have no wired internet availability.

"These companies that provide broadband service, they're typically for-profit businesses," Mosher said. "They're only going to provide broadband in areas where they can make money."

The 10 megabit per second download and 1 megabit per second upload speeds USDA's ReConnect program supports fall short of broadband benchmarks, but its $600 million in grants and loans can be a boon to rural areas on the wrong side of the digital divide. Cities, utilities, cooperatives and for-profit and nonprofit businesses in areas of 20,000 people or fewer are eligible to apply.

"We have a tremendous amount of money available through USDA Rural Development and the ReConnect program," Mosher said. "The way I look at it is this is your tax dollars. We need to spend as much as we can in Arkansas."

Local on 07/27/2019

Print Headline: Internet access becomes necessity for farmers

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