Are You Connected? A Land Access Guide to Broadband in Rural America

Image of rural broadband

Marjorie Sawicki works with new farmers through Food Works’ Southern Illinois Farm Beginnings program. One beginning mushroom grower she works with struggles with slow Internet speeds and sometimes has to wait 20 minutes for invoices to be uploaded to customers for payment. This has severely impeded his ability to sell fresh, perishable products in-real-time and provide efficient, quality service to his customers. 

“They’ll give up if they can’t access a market, communicate, and create their business," said Marjorie, "Today you have to be able to get online."  

When planning to buy a farm in the country, you probably think about access to clean water, fertile soils, housing, and infrastructure. But how often do you think about access to broadband?

You need to. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 39% of rural Americans lack access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service (broadband), compared to only 4% of urban Americans.

Because it’s so critical, we’re writing this article to help you incorporate broadband into your property assessments. Whether you’re an urban farmer who’s never had to think twice about accessing the Internet or a Luddite wishing to go back to simpler times, we’re here to walk you through the basics of broadband and how to check for fast, reliable connection on your future farm.

Broadband, or high-speed Internet access, allows users to access the Internet at significantly higher speeds than through “dial-up” services. Many of the technologies for delivering broadband to homes are land-based which is part of the reason rural America, with its low housing density and sparser population, isn’t as well connected as urban areas. Land-based technologies include Digital Subscriber Line (uses copper phone lines already installed in most rural homes), cable modem, and fiber optic technology (typically delivers the highest speed, but requires all new infrastructure). There are also several options for wireless connection including short-range WiFi, 5G, and satellite. The option that will be best for a particular property will depend on several factors including: budget, number of users, and service providers in the area.

When purchasing or leasing a rural property, there are several steps you can take to ensure you and your farm business have access to a reliable, high-speed Internet connection: 

  1. Search any address using this map from the FCC. Their data will show you what service providers are in the area, the types of broadband they offer, and compare their advertised speeds of service. 
  2. If there is currently WiFi at the property, check the Internet speed using this quick test. Make sure to not only check Internet speeds in the home but also in the other buildings on site and around the farm.  
  3. If you are in an area with low speeds or prices that are just too high for your budget, find out what the alternatives are. Depending on the property’s proximity to town, there may be a public library or coffee shop nearby with free WiFi (although we recognize this is not the ideal option).

You should also pay attention to alternative options that may be coming to a community you’re interested in. Like the 1930s, when rural Americans formed electricity co-ops to bring power to places big city utilities wouldn’t, some communities are creating broadband co-ops to bring broadband to their towns. 

And there is a new innovative option - Starlink. StarLink is an Internet service from Elon Musk’s company SpaceX that is spreading to the countryside. The mushroom grower mentioned earlier in this article recently bought a Starlink RV setup and says it has made Internet connection more reliable and a bit faster.

StarLink is promising “high-speed, low-latency broadband internet” by utilizing a plethora of low-Earth orbit satellites. It costs $110/month, plus a one-time cost of $559 for the hardware you buy upfront. This is expensive, considering the average cost of high-speed Internet is $60. Many users are attracted to this model though, because you don’t need to wait on outside providers to build infrastructure that may or may not come anytime soon.

There may be good news ahead. With the recent influx of over $42 billion from the Infrastructure Act to address the “digital divide” between rural and urban America, potential solutions, like StarLink and others, will be trialed and hopefully, in the end, lead to more broadband in rural America. In the meantime, continue to ask questions about Internet access when assessing a property.