Before the internet changed everyone’s life, telephone systems were known as common carriers, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) required telephone companies to treat everyone equal, since they were considered a utility and given authority to be a monopoly in a certain geographic area. They not only provided service to metropolitan areas, but also rural residents and everyone with a telephone knew they would pay the same and have the same guaranteed service as all other customers.
But with the advent of the internet and its way of “make the rules as you go,” the FCC was challenged to customize the “common carrier” rules of the road for firms that provide internet service until the concept of “net neutrality” was implemented as the rules of the Internet road. Wikipedia, the free Internet encyclopedia defines net neutrality as “the principle that internet service providers must treat all data on the internet the same, and not discriminate or charge differently by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or method of communication. For instance, under these principles, internet service providers are unable to intentionally block, slow down or charge money for specific websites and online content.”
All of this has a significant impact on nearly every farmer and nearly everyone who lives outside the wired network of a small or large community. (Full disclosure: The latter situation includes the author.) As the FCC prepares in mid-December to abolish the principle of “net neutrality,” everyone in agriculture should be watching, along with the 39 percent of rural residents who have been prevented from access to the high speed internet service available to everyone in a city or town.
In the current debate over dismantling net neutrality, North Carolina State University agricultural engineer Jason Ward has rhetorically asked, “Is the internet a ‘pipeline’ for data a public utility, or an entity that should be open for manipulation by internet service providers?” He says most of the debate is defined in terms of how entertainment content would be affected with or without net neutrality. But for agriculture, the commodity is not entertainment such as movies or on-demand sports, but the transfer of vast amounts of crop data from fields for processing into decision-making tools.
Soil and moisture maps, sensor data, and telemetry data from combines and tractors working in fields make agriculture a primary information highway that might easily rival the data flow from a fair-sized city. Ward says, “The assumption has always been that the data would flow uninhibited as fast as the network would allow – but that assumption may not always be true.”
Without the protection of current net neutrality rules, Ward rhetorically asks, “What happens if the farmer’s local ISP now dictates that only one image of their field can be uploaded or that your tractor manufacturer did not pay for priority so you can only get telemetry data that updates once every 30 minutes instead of every 30 seconds?”
Ward concludes, “Should it come to pass, the impact of eliminating net neutrality on digital farming has yet to be seen. But precision agriculture practitioners should be watching this space closely – this is not just an issue for gamers or entertainment consumers, but for those of us who believe that the Internet has made farming better.”
On the other hand, the trio of FCC commissioners who make up the majority and are expected to prevail in this debate, propose that “Actions to eliminate net neutrality would continue our critical work to promote broadband deployment to rural consumers and infrastructure investment throughout our nation, to brighten the future of innovation both within networks and at their edge, and to close the digital divide." In other words, the momentum is on the side of those with inferior internet connections, ripe for improvement by technical innovation.
However, beneficiaries of that innovation may have to pay a higher and varied prices and the information highway may become a toll road with different fares for movie downloads, crop data uploads, and combine sensors interacting with computers at the local equipment dealer.
While agriculture may benefit by expansion of broadband service to farm homes, higher costs and lower service may result for equipment datastreams.