(OpEd By Kentucky’s Commissioner of Agriculture Dr. Ryan Quarles. This piece originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Kentucky Farm Bureau Magazine.)
Across the nation, the coronavirus has highlighted issues in our food supply chain, our reliance on foreign countries for medical supplies, and the difference between strong, data-driven leaders and weak ones. But for Kentucky families and workers, perhaps the largest problem is one we’ve attempted to solve for years: internet connectivity, particularly in our rural communities.
I spoke with many parents over the course of the pandemic about the difficulties of balancing their new work-from-home life and remote instruction for students in their households. While nontraditional instruction days gave parents a newfound appreciation for our hardworking teachers, it also gave them a new sense of frustration with their Internet providers as they balanced student work on the web and work meetings via web camera.
And that’s if you even had a level of connectivity. In some areas of our state, connectivity is so poor that parents drove their students across the county to McDonald’s in hopes of higher speeds. Many metro areas have experienced similar issues, but they are fortunate to have received generations of investment from well-organized business sector interests. I don’t fault those cities for having that investment, but we must do something to ensure rural Kentucky get its fair shake at connectivity.
Farmers know all too well how important technology is to their businesses. Contrary to popular perception in the press and media, farmers are always the earliest adopters of new technology. If you visit any of Kentucky’s 75,000 family farms, odds are people will be struck by the role technology plays, from robotic milkers to tractors that drive themselves. Broadband is a critical tool for our farm families. It’s not just about being able to Google something; it’s about being able to grow something.
The good news is that progress is being made. Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s “ReConnect” broadband program delivered $55 million in grants and low interest loans to communities in rural Kentucky. The Kentucky Department of Agriculture also supported legislative efforts by Kentucky Farm Bureau to establish a framework for future investments to expand rural broadband. These actions and more are helping deliver on discussions I had with President Donald J. Trump as part of his Rural Prosperity Task Force meetings in the White House.
Internet connectivity will define the 21st century, as well as our state and nation’s ability to compete in the global economy. If we do not attack this problem with the same resolve we attacked rural electrification in the 1930s, we will be woefully unprepared to compete with the technological advancements made by China or India down the road.