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Rural broadband is the next big thing

Few of us are old enough to remember when electricity first came to farms across America. It was in the 1930s that the Rural Electrification Administration was able to loan money to set up local co-ops who built power lines to those who lived in the vast reaches of the rural countryside. What electricity did in the last century is what broadband will do in this one, if it is made available to farmers and other rural residents.

I realize that many can't grasp what the Internet (distributed through broadband) can be in your lives. It is not as simple as turning on a switch to illuminate an electric light bulb. The challenge of "grasping" the promise of the Internet is to take it in degrees, much like the introduction of electricity into farm homes.

When people began wiring their houses for electricity, it was the norm to put in one bare bulb light fixture in the middle of the room and one electrical outlet on a convenient wall. The first appliances to be purchased included rudimentary toasters and washers which still had a wringer and required hand labor. The refrigerator and freezer were the first real utilitarian devices that ran off electricity. And the information and entertainment devices soon followed. They changed the life style of the masses. Which came first, the TV or the TV dinner?

My point is that we can't start out with broadband access to the world with ultimate sophistication. Most of the major uses for the Internet haven't been invented yet. The high-speed line into your computer is like the light bulb hanging down in that 1930s household: an amazing thing, but just the beginning. The current speed of Internet communications will be viewed as a Model T Ford in a few years.

The promise of the Internet is not just a stream of information to your eyes and ears. We already have that in print, radio and TV. It is the ability to interact with the world in a manner that you deem efficient and appropriate. If you want to stream a church service from Australia to your screen, you can do so; if you want to find the highest bidder for your grain, you can do so. The challenge is time and discipline. The learning of what is available and how to use it will only come with use.

To me, the potential for use of broadband Internet is integration of technologies and ability to monitor employees, operations and systems from stationary or mobile points. Let's say you have a poultry barn that requires several hours of care each day. With sensors, cameras and other devices that are programmed to report what is going on, you have the means to relocate your activities to a home office or to a mobile platform better known as a pickup truck. You are never out of touch unless you choose to be so. You can grow in size and sophistication.

With the decline in population in rural communities and the influence of corporations over media, the means to find out what is going on locally is difficult. If you hear a siren and see the ambulance go by your house, you have little means of knowing where it's going. With broadband and communications devices already on the market, you can receive a short and timely message that answers your question about the destination of the EMS squad. The enterprise may become so popular that it has advertising support and becomes a profit center for a local business. Communities may once again become unified through advanced communications.

On the other side of this is the prospect that rural America is denied equal access to communications technology. What does that do to our competitiveness and our culture? We have already seen people come to rural areas for the quality of life but only if they can maintain their ability to do their jobs. Telecommuting can take on a whole new meaning with rural broadband access as information-based jobs can be placed in rural Kansas and not in Mumbai, India. Decentralizing our economy may become a reality and the out-migration of our young people may be reversed. How about your congressmen and senators doing their work from the state where they are influenced by their constituents and not, as much, by Washington lobbyists?

For those of you holding this magazine and thinking that taking in the same information from a computer screen would be far less satisfying, you are right. But, through the use of the Internet, the information you seek can be in front of you within seconds of being published. How much value that has depends on your stage of life and your personal and business interests.

Imagining rural America without electricity is unthinkable today. Imagining rural America without broadband Internet access in 20 years will be the same.

Editor's Note: This is Ken Root's 35th year as an agricultural reporter. He grew up on a small farm in central Oklahoma and started his career as a vocational agriculture teacher. He worked in Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri as a broadcaster and was the original host of AgriTalk. He has also been the executive director of the National AgriChemical Retailers Association in Washington, D.C. and the National Association of Farm Broadcasters in Kansas City. Ken is now the lead farm broadcaster at WHO and WMT Radio based in Des Moines, Iowa. He has been a columnist for HPJ and Midwest Ag Journal for eight years.

Date: 2/5/09


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