Business News for the Mississippi Delta

Broadband Needs

By Charles McClintock

My brother and I farm in and around Holly Bluff in the South Delta. My dad farmed here before us. It’s a proud, family tradition that runs deep throughout Mississippi with many of us stubbornly sticking to our agricultural roots.

Our state’s farmers produced $7.5 billion in commodities in 2017. I’ve witnessed tremendous increases in yields and in productivity that have taken place in agriculture since I came back to the farm in 1992. Rapid increases have been made possible through the development of better varieties and increases in operational efficiencies made possible by advancements in farming tech-nology. Those improvements were made through the collection and processing of huge amounts of data.

Farm equipment of today uses Global Positioning for guidance. It uses wireless data transfer to gather and transmit everything from the number of seed that are being planted to the amount of nutrient being applied to the yield per acre during harvest. Soil moisture is monitored remotely. Irrigation is started and stopped remotely. Imaging collected from drones is used to determine and manage plant health. All this is done in real time requiring high speed data connections. That “need for speed” will only increase over time as it has for urban industry. In order for our state to remain a leader in agriculture and in touch with modern precision farming, we must address rural broadband access. Our current network is straining to keep up.

The central challenge of bridging the rural broadband gap is the prohibitive cost of extending fiber cables, which can cost as much as $30,000/mile. That puts fiber out of the reach of much of rural Mississippi. Thankfully, big tech companies realize their responsibility to provide affordable service to even the most rural areas of our state. In fact, C Spire recently announced a consortium with companies like Microsoft and Nokia to create “real-world testbeds” to test broadband technology in rural Miss-issippi.

One of these technologies is TV white spaces—which uses vacant spectrum between broadcast television stations to wirelessly deploy broadband to remote, underserved areas. According to the Boston Consulting Group, a mixed-technology model that uses a combination of TV white spaces spectrum, wireless technology, LTE fixed wireless and satellite coverage, could lower the cost of bridging the rural broadband gap by 80 percent relative to fiber-only solutions.

Unfortunately, TV white spaces technology continues to be left on the sidelines as a result of regulatory barriers at the federal level. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted by a 5-0 margin to finalize two proceedings that are critical for TV white spaces technology. They granted guaranteed use of one channel and cleared up some technical issues such as tower height restrictions. I applaud Chairman Pai and the Commission’s action to close the digital divide.  Senator Wicker has been a steady advocate for expanding rural broadband access in places like Holly Bluff and I appreciate him using his role as Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee to make our voices heard in Washington.

However, there is still work to be done, as there are additional regulatory hurdles holding TV white spaces technology back. But this is a big step in the right direction to bringing broadband access to all Mississippians.

I urge FCC Chairman Pai and the rest of the Commissioners to build on this recent momentum by quickly addressing the outstanding regulatory barriers holding TV white spaces technology back. It would make a world of difference for farmers like me.