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New tool gauges economic effects of expanded broadband in rural IL

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By Will Wright for The Daily Yonder.

(Illinois News Connection) – As the federal government distributes $42.5 billion to expand broadband internet access across America and its territories, some local leaders are asking themselves: How much economic impact could faster internet create?

The true dollar figure would be spread across the economy, from agriculture and small businesses to harder-to-track impacts like an increased willingness for families to relocate to rural areas.

But a report by the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society estimates that, across 15 agricultural counties in Illinois, faster internet speeds could boost production of corn and soybeans by over $100 million annually.

The report argues that faster internet will allow farmers to more precisely plant, fertilize, and harvest crops — a method called “precision agriculture.” In areas with slow internet speeds, the ability to utilize precision agriculture methods is more limited, the report says.

A tool included in the report provides estimates of increased corn and soybean revenue in each of the 15 counties.

In Bond County, Illinois, the model estimates the county could have boosted corn and soybean production by a combined $4.8 million in 2021 if they had expanded broadband internet access.

The model relies on a paper that compares crop production data and internet speeds from 2007, 2012, and 2017, to see if better internet leads to increased farm output. The paper finds a substantial benefit to faster internet.

Relying on the projected production increases described in that paper, the Benton model suggests a possibility of millions of dollars a year in increased crop yields.

A researcher who is not affiliated with the study, Grant Gardner, an agriculture economist at the University of Kentucky, said he was skeptical of the hard-dollar projections. He said the study on which the tool is based does not account for other factors that could affect changes in yield, such as equipment improvements.

The designer of the tool, geography Professor John Kostelnick at Illinois State University, said that the model has limitations but that it can help rural leaders evaluate the broader economic gains that come with broadband expansion. Having a rational basis for including gains from agriculture could help rural communities compete for funding that will flow to states from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

“A lot of times rural areas don’t have high priority because they don’t have the population threshold,” Kostelnick said. “It’s easy to say, well, there’s just not a lot of people living there.”

Estimating the economic gains that broadband access would bring to farmers could give some rural communities an edge in competing for funding, he said.

Bryan Stevens, a corn and soybean farmer and board president of the Hancock County Farm Bureau, who participated in the Broadband Breakthrough program, said he sees increased broadband access as a serious factor for farmers’ pocketbooks.

“I can see how they can come up with these numbers based on efficiency,” Stevens said. “The less time I waste in the spring or in the fall … the better off I am.”

Local leaders also told the Daily Yonder access to telehealth and remote schooling also play into rural communities’ need for better internet.

Peggy Braffet, who operates a pick-your-own orchard with her husband in Carlock, Illinois, said the internet running to her property isn’t fast enough to allow clients to pay with credit cards.

As cash becomes less popular and more people arrive without it, Braffet said she’s worried about the amount of money she could miss out on. Increased revenue to businesses like the Braffet Berry Farm & Orchard isn’t included in the agricultural tool from the Benton Institute but nonetheless would add to the country’s increased economic output.

The Benton Institute’s Broadband Breakthrough program, which pulled together local leaders hoping to access federal broadband expansion dollars, also provided communities with a tool to find points of higher elevation in their home counties. Those high points can be identified as important locations when making a plan of how, and where, to lay new internet connections.

In flat regions, high points like grain elevators, water towers, and silos can be important nodes for various forms of wireless broadband technology.

Kostelnick said the economic estimate tool would likely need to be adjusted for other crops in areas less dominated by corn and soybeans. But, he said, the elevation tool should work in “just about any place.”