The Long Reach

As smart technology grows more essential to modern ag, farmers languish in digital dead zones

Back Longreads Aug 29, 2017 By Karen Wilkinson

David Ogilvie is a fourth-generation farmer growing wine grapes on his family’s 1,500-acre farm in Clarksburg, a 20-minute drive from downtown Sacramento. But make no mistake, this small Delta community is country by all accounts. Pickup trucks outnumber sedans along roads sandwiched between crop fields and the Sacramento River. It’s 10 degrees cooler than downtown Sacramento on a scorching summer day. You’ll lose your sense of time — and your cell phone service.

Clarksburg displays the best and worst of rural living in California. It’s teeming with agriculture — wine grapes, tomatoes, pears — and is anchored by a market, two churches and three adjacent schools. The Old Sugar Mill, a grand brick building built in 1934 as a beet sugar refinery, hosts over a dozen wineries and serves as a wedding venue. Some 400 residents consider this Yolo County community their home.

Ogilvie, his twin brother Phil, and their childhood friend Tom Merwin grew up playing in these fields. Today they run an award-winning wine company, Muddy Boot Wines, and produce grapes on Ogilvie’s family farm, Wilson Vineyards. They’ve recently introduced smart farming technologies intended to conserve energy and improve efficiency. But much to Ogilvie’s chagrin, capitalizing on agtech is proving to be a formidable feat.

The culprit? Unreliable broadband.

“The digital divide isn’t going away; it’s getting worse,” Ogilvie says. “Our society relies more on getting information digitally, and speaking as a farmer, all the new technology that comes out that helps me farm more efficiently requires internet connection of some kind. It’s worse than it was 10 years ago — 10 years ago we weren’t farming with smart phones.”

California remains the largest agricultural economy in the U.S. According to data from the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, the Sacramento region’s ag industry generates $1.9 billion in crop production for an overall economic impact of $7.2 billion through processing, packaging, distribution and additional support industries. Thirty percent of the region’s annual export activity is through crop production and food manufacturing, and the industry supports 37,000 jobs.

Yet those living and working locally in agriculture have limited access to modern technologies. Only 43 percent of California’s rural population has the same internet speed as urban areas, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.

As the baby boom generation retires — like Ogilvie’s parents — smart farming tools will help the next generation stay competitive and in business, he says.

Yet the utter lack or inadequate nature of high-speed internet has become a roadblock to efficiency and sustainability. Ogilvie and local leaders are working to bring better broadband and wireless capabilities to the area. Some small internet service providers are working in tandem, but it’s a struggle for them as well.

Ogilvie isn’t just griping about being unable to stream Netflix — he’s talking about total dead zones on ranches. Being tied to the office to load data related to his crops’ growth, moisture levels or overall weather fluctuations. Having all the savvy farm apps at his disposal, but being unable to use them. 

GETTING CONNECTED

Broadband, or high-speed internet, can include several modes of delivery — DSL, cable modem, fiber, wireless, fixed wireless, satellite and BPL (broadband over powerlines) — and is currently defined by the Federal Communications Commission as 25 megabits/second download, and 3 Mbps upload. That said, the California Public Utilities Commission has lower standards of 6 Mbps download, and 1.5 Mbps upload.

“There’s a lot we can do with better internet,” says Trish Kelly, managing director of Valley Vision. “Our telecoms are not required to put the same level of speed in, which is crazy because we’re California, the leading tech state.”

Even with the lower speed standards, five of the six counties in the Sacramento region detailed in Valley Vision’s “Broadband Report Card”  received “barely passing” grades.  

Kelly and Ogilvie were two of four co-chairs on the 2017 Cap-to-Cap Food and Agriculture Committee pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. (organized by the Sacramento Metro Chamber). This spring they pushed for more federal grant funding for broadband infrastructure projects — it can cost tens of thousands of dollars to build a trench fiber connection for one remote home — in rural areas where it’s not economically viable for the private sector to invest, among other issues.

There’s no simple answer to how much it would cost to get a town the size of Clarksburg more reliable broadband, says Tara Thornson, Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor’s deputy. “I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution to everything. You need a willing provider and player. If they’re not willing to partner, we’re stuck. We’re not in the broadband business.”

There are pervasive barriers to publicly funding infrastructure where the private market does not invest, Kelly says, which are worsened by federal funding programs’ direct tie to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition of rural.

“We realized the problem for some of our communities, like Woodland or Marysville, is they’re grouped into larger urban population areas,” Kelly says. “The biggest problem is that the USDA is a major funder for rural broadband infrastructure projects; our region cannot compete for those resources,” she says.

Such language limits local rural regions’ access to critical funding, and doesn’t accurately reflect the nature of rural California communities in proximity to urban areas, she says. There is no clear-cut definition of rural, however, as different population thresholds exist for different federal programs, but “those definitions are made for the rural Midwest,” Kelly says.  

Who is responsible — the private sector or the government — remains a major issue. Infrastructure improvements are costly, and with too few customers spread over too great a distance, are usually not worth the return on investment for business.

But some ISPs are finding ways.

THE STRUGGLE OF SMALL ISPS

About 60 miles northeast of Sacramento in Nevada City, tiny pockets of town receive cable internet, which is the best available, says Spiral Internet CEO John Paul.

Paul describes rural broadband speeds as oftentimes “intolerable,” with the big companies doing as little as possible to get by. Spiral Internet — which provides DSL to about 1,200 customers — tries to fill this gap by paying a wholesale price to use AT&T’s network, and in turn selling that network to customers through Spiral.

If that sounds convoluted, it’s because it is. To even use Spiral’s services, customers need to have a landline through AT&T. And if those customers lose phone service due to billing disputes, their internet gets shut off too — even if they’ve paid their bill to Spiral.

People are miffed, to say the least. “It’s a nightmare — it’s getting worse and worse, and no one seems to know this,” Paul says. “We’re dealing with so many angry people right now.”

Related: John Paul on the Future of Rural-Access Internet

He’s trying to get out of the DSL business and into something more reliable, without the hassle of corporate telecoms. Spiral was awarded a $16.2 million California Advanced Services Fund grant in 2015, which will allow the building of broadband in areas either without any access, or that use dial-up. 

He believes that installing a fiber optic network in the ground is a better long-term plan than fixed wireless technology, which requires a “line in sight” and no obstructions such as trees or hills. “Once you put it in the ground, it’ll last for 50 to 100 years,” Paul says. “It’s worthwhile as far as the state money going into it. Whereas fixed wireless technology you’ll have to swap out in five to 10 years due to technology changes.”

Nevada City also applied for a Google-sponsored gigabit fiber network in 2010. Although it wasn’t chosen, Paul says he was inspired by Google’s call to action and now Spiral, with community support, is moving forward on a similar project of its own.  A gigabit translates to 1,000 Mbps download and upload. Paul says the project should break ground in September.

In Clarksburg, broadband options are scarce — the primary provider is Frontier Communications, which has placed a moratorium on new accounts.  

While Frontier has investigated upgrades to the area through the Connect America fund, or other state-sponsored programs, Clarksburg isn’t eligible, says Frontier Spokesman Javier Mendoza. (Frontier did not respond to inquiries as to the reasons behind the moratorium or Clarksburg’s ineligibility.)

Broadband infrastructure grades in certain areas of Yolo County are ranked “F” in an analysis of data provided by the California Public Utilities Commission, which considers existing levels of broadband service, competition and speed. A failing grade of “F,” which Clarksburg received, means there’s at least one service provider, but none provide service that meets the CPUC’s minimum speed standards.

In the town of Winters, also in Yolo County, Winters Broadband CEO Brian Horn competes with satellite broadband providers to cover about 500 square miles, he says. Most customers are farmers or living on small farms between Winters and Davis.

And that’s his forte. Winters Broadband provides fixed wireless, point-to-multipoint broadband at speeds of up to 25 Mbps download, and 6.25 Mbps upload. An antenna is mounted to a customer’s home, which receives a wireless signal from one of the company’s 65 access points (or cell phone towers). This method is more reliable in areas without major obstructions such as trees or hills, Horn says.  

Like Paul with Spiral in Nevada City, Horn’s business model includes buying cost-effective broadband from ISPs that don’t provide service in rural areas, such as AT&T and Wave Broadband, which he then resells to customers in tiered packages. The surge in streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime has increased customers’ bandwidth demands, which his company meets by continually negotiating for lower prices with larger service providers.  

Another ongoing challenge is obtaining sites to install towers. Winters Broadband either owns or leases the space for its towers, which on the high end can support between 30 and 40 customers, Horn says. “We have a small user base, not thousands,” he says. “So to try and pass that cost on [to customers] is not easy.”

With an engineering background and experience in the Silicon Valley startup world, Horn understands both technology and finances. He’s learned what to not do. “We haven’t grown as fast as other [providers] have, but we don’t have millions in debt in loans that they’ve used to grow,” Horn says.

For him, creating a direct customer service line, what he calls “managed service,” allows his company to remain competitive and attractive. Technicians can diagnose connection issues remotely, Horn says, which saves money on site visits and time.

Most issues customers encounter involve Wifi-enabled devices that suck up bandwidth and decrease overall speed and service, which they’re usually unaware of, Horn says.

LOSING OUT ON AGTECH

Agricultural technology is slowly taking root on farms looking to increase production while decreasing costs. Ogilvie is among those farmers willing to experiment with gizmos and gadgets.

Five years ago, Ogilvie installed drip irrigation systems on all but one of his vineyards. In summer 2016, he hopped on the smart farming train, and using Farm Data Systems to assess the farm’s needs, had soil moisture probes installed on two of the five ranches. This technology interfaces with a smartphone or tablet, but without consistent, reliable service across the farm, cannot be uniformly installed. “I’m losing efficiency on three ranches,” he says.

Earlier this summer, he had a smart weather system installed that tracks wind, rainfall, temperature, humidity and solar activity, which translates into the amount of water needed for the vineyards.

Another smart feature on Ogilvie’s farm is an aerial mapping tool that transmits images that show areas of vigorous vs. weak growth. To use it, Ogilvie must load the app at the office, then drive out to the fields. But if he wants to pull up the map while in the fields, he’s in a dead zone.

Ogilvie’s story echoes many others throughout the region who lack the access required to capitalize on the digital economy. While designed to improve efficiency, increase productivity and give farmers more control over their plots, agtech is often out of reach for those they’re aimed at serving.

“You can’t deploy these innovative technologies in the field unless you have broadband,” Kelly says. “At a real level, it affects our economy. We’re a $7 billion economic driver for food and agriculture, yet if we don’t have farmers who can use ag technology, they will lag behind in being as efficient and productive as possible.”

DOING THE DIGGING 

While it’d be nice to say that overall service in rural areas is improving, Kelly says that’s not necessarily the case. “The more we document the speed tests, the more areas of need we have,” she says. And she would know.

As part of an agtech pilot project in Yolo County, Valley Vision conducted research, surveyed farmers and studied actual internet speeds to gather qualitative and quantitative evidence of broadband capacity and gaps.

Even if speed is taken out of the equation, with only one or two providers and dismal or no competition, costs increase for users and unreliability becomes the norm.

Kelly says ISPs don’t always understand the economic impact of investing in high-speed internet. “But if it doesn’t make sense for providers, that’s OK, but let us work with other providers,” she says. “If they’re not going to invest, get out of the way. We’re trying to document better what the gaps are, and make the case for why it’s important to invest in California.”

Without the pressure to compete, ISPs can move into an area and become complacent, as happened when Verizon in 2015 sold a portion of its wireless phone, internet and TV networks to Frontier Communications, which included Clarksburg.

“And they [Frontier] don’t want to expand service,” Kelly says. “We just really want to help our communities get fair access to services, and we want to help our providers too,” she says.

That’s where the Internet For All Now Act comes into play. This would extend the California Advanced Services Fund, which was established by the Legislature in 2008 and comes from a few cents mostly surcharge on phone bills.

For Ogilvie, quicker and faster service can’t happen soon enough. At his office, he receives 27 Mbps download and 8.5 Mbps upload. But after loading his smart farming apps, as he drives his pickup truck into a vineyard, he loses reception entirely.

“It’s frustrating because you’re trying to get work done,” he says. “Five percent of the population feeds the other 95 percent — don’t you think it’s important to give that 5 percent what they need to do their job?”

Editor’s Note: The original version of this stated that Nevada City had won the 2010 Google-sponsored contest. They did not, but Spiral Internet is moving forward on a similar project of its own. We regret the error. 

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