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Four Ways that Rural Broadband Fights Climate Change

The COVID-19 pandemic and economic shutdown that followed emphasized how critical broadband access is—with many Americans transitioning to telework and online learning, and telehealth services becoming vital in reducing the risk of coronavirus transmission.Yet over 24 million Americans do not have access to fixed broadband service at threshold speeds, 80% of which live in rural and tribal communities (Figure 1).

Expanding broadband services to currently underserved communities has the potential to create lasting economic, educational, and health benefits. Perhaps less apparent, yet no less important, the expansion of broadband connectivity can also contribute to mitigating and adapting to the risks of climate change. Here we discuss four key connections between rural broadband and climate change, and how Congress can put Americans back to work by expanding and increasing access to rural broadband infrastructure.

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1. Precision Agriculture

Precision agriculture is the use of modern information technologies for on-farm data collection and analysis to inform decision-making for improved resource use efficiency, yield, quality, profitability, and sustainability of agricultural production.

Precision technologies can enable climate-friendly farming by increasing carbon sequestration in agricultural soils and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural operations. The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine estimates that the United States can store 250 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year through cropland and rangeland soil practices that protect and enhance soil organic matter. Precision agriculture helps do this, for example, through the use of variable rate technology to optimize the application of organic amendments and minimize erosion from irrigation. According to a review of precision agriculture technologies, greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced through lowered fuel consumption from fewer tractor operations and reduced fertilizer for field operations. Nitrogen fertilizer releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas with a global warming potential nearly 300 times that of carbon dioxide. Optimizing nitrogen fertilizer application through precision technology could significantly reduce on-farm nitrous oxide emissions, as well as improve water quality by reducing nitrogen runoff from farmland.

Precision agriculture technologies also include machine guidance, remote sensing, in-field electronic sensors, and spatial data management systems. Farmers can use machine guidance to automatically steer agricultural equipment through in-cab computer controllers. Remotely sensed images taken by satellite and in-field electronic sensors allow farmers to assess field conditions remotely, and the collected data can be managed in spatial data management systems, such as GIS.

Access to broadband is just the base level for entry into precision agriculture. To practice precision agriculture, farmers must also purchase equipment, such as soil sensors and fertilizer systems with variable application rates, that utilize broadband services. Rural broadband buildout opens the door to precision agriculture by allowing farmers access and the opportunity to connect.

2. Precision Forestry

Precision forestry is the use of digital technologies—such as drones, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), lidar, and soil sensors—to improve forest management results. Broadband access facilitates data collection and analysis from precision forestry technologies, helping forest managers to streamline processes and practice climate-friendly forestry in three key ways. First, using similar methods to precision agriculture, managers of intensively managed planted forests can optimize fertilizer applications and reduce associated nitrous oxide emissions through the use of soil sensors and related digital technologies.

Second, remote sensing and digital monitoring allows for coordinated responses to minimize damage to forests from pests, diseases, and wildfires. Remote sensing with UAVs can achieve a detection accuracy of 80-95% for pest and disease outbreaks over very large areas of forest, and drones and UAVs enable real-time fire tracking and mapping to inform firefighter control efforts. When trees die, most of their stored carbon is gradually released into the atmosphere as they decay. One study found an estimated annual loss of 5.53 million metric tons of carbon in biomass is caused by invasions of forest insects and diseases in the continental United States. Wildfires can also release large amounts of stored carbon.

Finally, precision forestry technologies allow for faster and more accurate forest inventory data collection. As an increasing number of companies set corporate commitments to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, in part through carbon offset purchases, accurate forest inventories are needed for measuring and verifying carbon offsets.

3. Next Generation Energy Efficiency

Web-enabled digital technologies are also at the heart of new approaches to helping residential, commercial, and industrial utility customers achieve high levels of energy efficiency, thereby avoiding and lowering greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation. Next generation energy efficiency relies on streamlined data collection, automated and centralized controls, two-way customer communication, powerful data analytics, and new incentive programs that go further than traditional product rebates to take a whole-building approach.

A modernized electric grid and broadband-enabled devices can drive substantial increases in energy efficiency. BP and its research partners project that by 2050, net electricity demand in the United States could be lowered by over 25% with the use of digital technologies, such as smart meters and condition-monitoring sensors, in conjunction with the deployment of broadband. The greatest reduction in energy use is projected to come from the industrial and commercial sectors. Agricultural producers make up a significant portion of industrial electric customers in certain states, primarily due to energy-intensive farm irrigation. Sensor-based “smart” irrigation systems can optimize irrigation to save both water and energy. Energy efficiency in agricultural buildings and equipment can be improved through broadband-enabled timer controls and moisture sensors for building ventilation, and electric control devices for electric water heaters to manage peak demands. One dairy farm in Pennsylvania was able to save $300 annually in energy costs by implementing energy conservation measures.

Improving energy efficiency in residential homes through broadband-enabled devices can also provide significant cost-savings to utility customers. This is especially important in rural areas where household energy burden, or the percent of annual income spent on energy, is approximately 40% higher than their urban counterparts.

The energy savings potential next generation energy efficiency can provide, combined with a desire to close the digital gap, is driving rural electric cooperatives to support broadband deployment, with nearly 100 electric co-ops investing in high speed internet service for rural communities. To achieve this, some rural electric cooperatives have joined with local telecommunications companies to form innovative partnerships. For example, BOLT Fiber Optic Service, a subsidiary of Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative, worked with the telecommunications company Alcatel-Lucent to deliver broadband to rural communities in Oklahoma.

4. Resilient Rural Electric Systems

Broadband services could create more resilient energy systems in rural America when combined with advanced technologies that respond digitally to changing electric demand through a two-way communication between consumers and the electric utility. Such technologies, often referred to as “smart grid” technologies, include digital meters that provide consumers with more advanced information and automatically report service outages, sensors to gauge grid stability, automated feeder switches that can circumvent power to avoid faults, and battery storage to balance peak demand and surplus generation. Benefits of a modernized electric grid include a more reliable and efficient delivery of electricity, reduced power outages, increased resilience to storms, and a quicker return to power following an outage.

These new communication pathways between utilities and consumers require an internet connection, making broadband access a prerequisite for a modernized electric grid. Rural electric cooperatives have expressed support for broadband access, to take advantage of smart technologies. The president and CEO of Roanoke Electric Cooperative, Curtis Wynn, testified before the House Committee on Agriculture on July 19, 2017 on how smart technologies help the cooperative manage peak loads and reduce electric bills for consumers.

Economic benefits of broadband-enabled climate solutions

The potential climate benefits of rural broadband buildout can be achieved in tandem with the growth of rural economies. One analysis found that in 2015 alone, the rural broadband industry supported nearly 70,000 jobs and contributed over $24 billion to state economies, and according to a 2019 report by the Department of Agriculture, deploying universal broadband can create an extra $47-$65 billion each year for the U.S. economy. In the agriculture sector, farmers could significantly reduce their costs through the use of precision technology; for example, yield monitoring could save farmers $25 per acre in input costs and weather modeling could prevent an average of $264,000 per year in specialty crop loss per farmer. Although these financial gains could not be realized immediately, broadband expansion would provide an opportunity for underserved farms to modernize their practices and become more economically competitive in the long-term. At the household level, deployment of universal broadband together with digital energy efficiency technologies is estimated to lower residential electricity bills by as much as one-fifth.

Policy options for accelerating rural broadband buildout

Existing barriers to expanding broadband coverage in rural communities include uncertain market returns for private investors and weak demand in emerging broadband markets, driven in part by high up-front costs and the complexity of many broadband-enabled technologies. Increased federal investment is necessary to break down these barriers, which could be accelerated through recovery and stimulus policy. As part of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Near-Term Stimulus and Recovery Proposals for U.S. Agriculture and Forests, we recommend that legislative efforts to rebuild our economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic should expand Department of Agriculture and Department of Interior programs to bring universal broadband access to rural and tribal communities.

There are currently three USDA Rural Utilities Service Telecommunication Programs aimed at incentivizing full rural broadband buildout. The Rural Development Broadband ReConnect Program, the Rural Broadband Access Loan and Loan Guarantee Program, and the Community Connect Grants Program furnish grants, loans, and loan guarantees for broadband deployment in underserved, rural areas. Additionally, the Rural Utilities Service Electric Program provides loans for electric infrastructure buildout in rural communities, including smart grid initiatives which could further encourage broadband deployment.

Although tribal communities are eligible for funding under all three USDA programs, programs that specifically seek to address the unique barriers tribes face in broadband deployment are also necessary. The Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs recently established a National Tribal Broadband Grant program to provide funding for tribes to hire consultants to perform feasibility studies for broadband buildout on tribal lands.

Congress should authorize additional funding for these USDA and DOI programs to further incentivize universal broadband buildout and encourage private sector measures designed to kickstart the nascent demand side of rural broadband markets and help consumers adopt broadband-enabled technologies.

The Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration have also sought to address the challenges facing minority communities in gaining access to broadband services. In a recent FCC report assessing these challenges, the FCC outlined a plan to set aside at least $340 million to fund 4G LTE service on tribal lands as part of its Connect America Fund (formally known as High-Cost Support). Additionally, the FCC’s Lifeline program provides a higher subsidy for low-income residents on tribal lands for telecommunication services and the FCC’s E-Rate program provides additional discounts to match funding for broadband deployment for tribal schools and libraries.

To support other minority groups in gaining access to broadband services, the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration launched the Minority Broadband Initiative in conjunction with Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The initiative is aimed at leveraging HBCU broadband infrastructure for vulnerable, local communities and using broadband deployment as a catalyst for economic development in the rural South.

Expansion of the existing USDA Rural Service Utilities and DOI programs and new initiatives to support broadband deployment to underserved minority groups are needed to close the gap for the millions of rural Americans who lack essential access to fixed broadband service—creating opportunities to lower net greenhouse emissions while bolstering rural economies.

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