Rural Broadband: Going That Last Mile

Posted on Jul 30, 2018

 

The drive through Henry County, Kentucky is filled with sights of scenic cropland, numerous hay fields and rolling green pastures full of livestock, leaving no doubt that agriculture is king in the rural sections of this region. The turn into the drive of the Douglas farm offers more of the same.

For those acclimated to a rural lifestyle, it would seem this place has all the necessary components to be a farmer. But there is one thing missing that farm families need now more than ever before; adequate broadband coverage.

In this modern world of technological advances, connectivity is a necessity now, as opposed to a luxury. But often, rural areas in Kentucky and other parts of the country still don’t have consistent enough service to adequately send email let alone provide the means to operate things like sophisticated GPS mapping systems and fail-proof cell service. Being ‘connected” is critical to the success of family farms. 

Kylen Douglas knows all too well how much broadband plays in his life on the farm where he grew up. It now serves as home to his wife and children.

He readily admits there’s no other place on the planet he would rather be, but modern farming and technology go together and in his part of the world, that doesn’t always happen.

“A lot of times it depends on which hill you’re standing on and which way the wind blows as to whether or not I can get service out here,” he said. “And that can get frustrating at times especially when you are really depending on it.”

In addition to seeing this issue from a farming perspective, Kylen also sees it as it relates to his off-farm job, as an agriculture teacher and FFA advisor at Franklin County High School. The lack of adequate broadband service can make that job a little more challenging when trying to work from home, which is something teachers often do.

Beth and Kylen Douglas at home on their farm in Henry County.

“I’ve lived on this farm my whole life except for a few years and while I attended college. It is a very traditional farm that includes tobacco, hay, some of which is organic hay, a smaller feeder cattle operation, a couple of beef cattle herds, along with corn and soybeans,” he said. “But even the most traditional of farms rely on good broadband service and once you get away from the Interstates, the service out here gets pretty sparse.”

Beth Douglas, Kylen’s wife, takes care of most of business needs and paper work for the farm while also being a stay-at-home mom with their three children. She points out that although the farm is located in an area just outside of the triangle that includes the large metro areas of Louisville, Lexington and Cincinnati, the service they need near Pleasureville is just not there.

“We can get service here but it’s not the quality service you get when closer to bigger cities,” she said.” As we use the internet more and more for things like taking online classes, ordering goods for the farm and family, and even working some jobs from home, the need for adequate service grows, as well.”

As poor as the service can be at times, it gets even worse if both Beth and Kylen are online at the same time. “It becomes really slow around 6:30 at night when more people are home and using their computers,” he said.

From a teacher’s perspective, Kylen said he can sympathize with his students who live in the more rural areas and have a difficult time using the internet for school homework. With students in his county having individual access to Chromebooks, much of what they do for school is now done via the computer and the internet. 

“I do have many students that live in rural areas like I do so I understand that sometimes, in giving a certain assignment, those students may not be able to do it,” he said. “And a lot of our assignments are internet-based nowadays and you have to adapt. But for myself and rural students you have to keep in mind that that service just may not be available.”

Often Douglas has to make the trip into town to be able to complete a task for school or the farm utilizing broadband service and says that it could be just the price for living where he does.

His neighbor and local advocate to improve the rural broadband service in Henry County doesn’t see it that way.

Janet Grissom has worked for 30 years in Washington D.C. in many public service jobs, including having once served as Senator Mitch McConnell’s chief of staff and in the Whitehouse under the George H.W. Bush administration.

She said the lack of broadband service in rural areas is appalling and it holds back the communities, and the businesses and people in those communities.

“The internet has become as basic of a utility as water or electric. Students have to be able to access the internet to do their homework; small business people need it for marketing purposes, farmers need it for their businesses, and the Franklinton Baptist Church needs it to stream their Sunday services for those who can’t get out!” she said. “But it’s a complicated issue and it’s not all going to come from the government or the private sector but it has to be a partnership.”

Grissom said in order for broadband to get to that last mile, it has to remain a priority, noting all the sectors that are affected by it including economic development, healthcare, agriculture and education, for instance.

“There is only going to be more and more need for high speed internet to stay connected,” she said.

Michael Douglas, a cousin to Kylen, lives in the same area and farms fulltime. While he still farms for the most part without that connectivity, he said because advanced technology is more and more a part of the industry, he doesn’t expect that to be the case for much longer.

“I don’t think we have gotten to the point of having to have complete broadband service on some farming operations yet, but it’s moving that way,” he said. “It’s getting to where you will have to use more modern technology or you’ll get left behind.”

He pointed out that even with the more modern equipment, you need adequate broadband service in order for that equipment to work properly and for periodic software updates to take place.

Kylen said even though he, his wife and cousin all have college degrees in agriculture, technology changes quickly and you have to continually learn to keep up with those changes.

“Even the smallest of new ‘tools’ that will give you an extra bushel or an extra pound or two, can make a lot of difference,” he said. “This is especially true when it comes to marketing. There’s a big difference when you’re selling feeder calves and able to get an extra two, three or four cents a pound. And that can change, so if the market is up you have to be able to go. Without that information you get through the internet, you are just rolling the dice.”

Having consistent internet service drives all of these issues such as software updates, marketing information, and GPS mapping; and adequate broadband drives the internet. 

Kylen and Michael said in listening to what their parents and grandparents said about the advantages electricity and city water made when coming to their rural part of the world, it would only make sense that sufficient broadband service should be next.