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New Broadband Maps are Coming. Will Agriculture Be Left Behind Again?  

Broadband continues to be a hot topic for rural America. The recently-passed Infrastructure Act included more than $42 billion to address the “digital divide” between rural and urban areas. But how do we know what areas need this investment?  

For decades, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been heavily criticized for the broadband maps it created. This included the underlying data collection process, which counted an entire census block as “served” if only a single household could actually get a connection. Other entities that might need broadband, like community facilities or agricultural buildings, were largely ignored.  

A Solution Appears:  Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric

Congress realized this was problematic, and in early 2020 passed the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act.  The DATA Act required the development of a national “broadband serviceable location fabric” or BSLF – a georeferenced dataset of all locations or structures where broadband could be installed.  In November 2021, the FCC selected CostQuest Associates (CQA), a broadband consulting firm, as the initial BSLF provider. Due to the significant amounts of funding aimed at broadband expansion and the immediate need for more accurate broadband availability maps, there are high hopes that the BSLF will provide more granular and accurate data that can be used to inform funding allocations and policy decisions. The first version of the new map is expected to be available this fall.  

Unfortunately, it looks as if the BSLF data may not include agricultural structures after all. 

We recently published two papers taking a preliminary look at the BSLF data for the state of Oklahoma.  The data was licensed by the state of Oklahoma from CQA to aid in the creation of a state broadband availability map ahead of the national BSLF’s release. The dataset we worked with included over 1.5 million entries, each representing a specific structure that could receive broadband access. 

This version of the data did include agricultural structures. Our first paper estimated that across Oklahoma, more than 1/3 of the roughly 13,000 agricultural structures lacked access to the FCC’s current broadband threshold (25 Mbps download / 3 Mpbs upload). More than 75% lacked access to the more stringent 100 Mbps down / 20 Mbps up that will be required for new networks funded by the federal government.  Agriculture had the highest percentage of structures lacking broadband of any category in the BSLF data.  

Our second paper looked at several Oklahoma counties more in-depth.  From the example of farming-dependent Tillman County, we can see that better broadband speeds are located near towns and cities. As a result, residential structures in these areas have access to the fastest speeds in each county. Agricultural structures, on the other hand, are scattered throughout, and the majority of these are in areas with very poor (< 10 Mbps) broadband service. In Tillman County, only 10% of residential structures lacked access to 25/3 Mbps service compared to more than 60% of agricultural structures. 

Figure 1: BSLF entries in Tillman County, Oklahoma (Source: CostQuest Associates BSLF (2021); FCC Form 477, December 2020)

More specifically, agricultural structures make up only 8% of all units in Tillman County but represent 32% of the units lacking 25/3 Mbps service (Table 1). To receive funds under the Infrastructure Act, providers must be able to connect structures with 100/20 Mbps speeds. The gap for this speed threshold is even starker since 89% of agricultural buildings in Tillman County lack 100/20 Mbps access. 

Table 1: Active BSLF points by category, Tillman County, Oklahoma. (Source: CostQuest Associates BSLF (2021); FCC Form 477 , December, 2020)

Excluding an agricultural structure designation in the forthcoming version of the BSLF could significantly impact the total number of unserved locations. In Tillman County, only 363 residential units lacked 25/3 Mbps service. Including agricultural structures nearly doubles this figure to over 700 lacking broadband. This variation could significantly change the total dollar amounts necessary to bring such counties to “full connectivity.”

Updated Version of BSLF Does Not Include Agriculture

At the heart of the mapping initiative lies the need to correctly identify all structures that exist and need broadband service. Though the BSLF is an important step in the right direction for this process, an updated version (July 2022) of the BSLF given to broadband service providers and government entities does not include a category to specifically identify agricultural structures. In this version, options for the “building type” designation include only “Residential,” “Business,” “Both Residential and Business,” and “Group Quarters.” This is in contrast to the earlier versions of CQA data reported on here where agricultural structures were explicitly identified.  The updated BSLF does include codes for non-broadband serviceable locations, but only for “Community Anchor Institution,” “Enterprise,” and “Other.”  It is unclear where, if at all, agricultural structures are included.  

Many states are preparing their own broadband maps in preparation to distribute their share of the $42 billion infrastructure funding.  However, the BSLF provided to the states in mid-2022 does not appear to include agriculture.  This is a problem because our research shows that agricultural structures are disproportionately left without service.  Admittedly, not all agricultural buildings will require broadband – but they should at least be part of the discussion. Rural and agricultural advocates should be aware of these issues and discuss them with whoever is constructing the official broadband map and evaluating broadband proposals in their state.  The FCC’s Precision Agriculture Connectivity Task Force should also weigh in on this development.  

Christina Biedny is a Ph.D. student and Graduate Research Assistant at Oklahoma State University.

Brian Whitacre is Professor and Neustadt Chair at Oklahoma State University. Their studies were recently published in Telecommunications Policy and the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association magazine Choices and are entitled “A preview of the broadband fabric: Opportunities and issues for researchers and policymakers” and “The Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric, Rural America and Agriculture.” 

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