Guest Columnist

Rural Iowa needs better broadband access

A Rantizo unmanned aerial vehicle sits on the ground near a vineyard at Fireside Winery, 1755 P Avenue, in Marengo, Iowa, on Friday, April 26, 2019. The Iowa City-based company is using UAVs to deliver agrochemicals using an electrostatic sprayer to more efficiently deliver the chemicals onto crops.  (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
A Rantizo unmanned aerial vehicle sits on the ground near a vineyard at Fireside Winery, 1755 P Avenue, in Marengo, Iowa, on Friday, April 26, 2019. The Iowa City-based company is using UAVs to deliver agrochemicals using an electrostatic sprayer to more efficiently deliver the chemicals onto crops. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

As the CEO of a new and growing tech startup, I’m frequently on the road in rural areas. More often than I’d like, I find myself grabbing a bite at a convenience store or fast food restaurant.

I often see parents and children congregating at these same places, but to them, the businesses are serving up something far more important than milkshakes. To these families, internet access is the most valuable item on the menu; something they don’t have access to in their own homes. The glow from their laptops while they do homework confirms this.

Across the thousands of miles I’ve traveled and dozens of gas station sandwiches I’ve consumed, I’ve repeatedly seen this problem and it hits close to home every time.

Insufficient broadband connectivity in rural America forces parents and children to rely on gas stations and fast food restaurants to do something as simple as homework. Of course, it isn’t truly ‘homework’ if they have to do it away from home. This lack of modern access leaves these families disconnected not only from the internet, but disconnected from the world.

My company, Rantizo, is an agricultural tech startup using drones to spray in fields, so I interact with rural America on a daily basis. I see those children and families who are disconnected. I also see farmers who lack that critical access to high-speed broadband.

According to a 2019 report on population prospects from the Population Division of the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the world population will reach close to 9.5 billion people by the year 2050. Despite a growing population, fewer and fewer employees want to work in agriculture, which leads to a dilemma.

The modern farmer must have access to tools that allow them to produce more food with less people. We need more from each acre and need to do so more efficiently.

The only way to meet that demand is to use technology and autonomy in the field. Examples that I’ve seen recently include robots used for strawberry harvests, technology to prevent piglets being crushed by their mothers, and the technology my company is developing for autonomous drone-based spraying and field applications.

The crux of this argument is that the vast majority of these tools rely on some level of data or informational relay. This could be satellite data for field mapping, imagery files for decision making, or countless other examples. What does it take to push this data in or out of the field? Broadband internet connection.

There are no shortage of ag tech start-ups like mine working to create solutions for the modern farmer. In 2017, total investment in the ag tech sector was over $1.5 billion, according to the World Economic Forum. Expansion in rural broadband connectivity and efforts is crucial to connect new technologies and optimize output.

Some might be thinking, “Well I don’t live in rural America” or “I’m not a farmer, why do my tax dollars need to go toward building broadband infrastructure for it?”

In Iowa, The Office of the Chief Information Officer administers a broadband grant program that leverages federal funds and public and private partnerships to award grants to communications service providers installing broadband infrastructure in targeted service areas.

In 2019, this grant awarded $1.3 million dollars for 7 projects that would provide 7,200 homes, schools, businesses, and farms with broadband access according to the Iowa Chief Information Officer Jeff Franklin. Another $5 million cycle of grants will be awarded this fall.

The need for rural broadband expansion in Iowa is bigger than just to suit the interests of ag tech entrepreneurs like me. Rural broadband is important for education, health care, and many other industries. It is also what will keep rural Iowa connected to what else is happening around the world.

Connections are valuable in life, in business, and in our communities and we support the governor in efforts to increase access for all Iowans. Rural broadband is no exception.

Michael Ott is the founder and CEO of Rantizo, a drone spraying company based in Iowa City.

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