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A new, connected future may be on the horizon for Pennsylvania farmers.

[Published by the Erie Times-News and Somerset Daily American, October 3rd]


BURGETTSTOWN — Burbling across kelly-green acreage in his Gator, David Bentrem wonders about the future of the farm his grandfather bought in 1962.

It's just a 15-minute drive from downtown Pittsburgh. In some ways it's 50 years behind.

"In a sense, we've been farming this way since agriculture was a thing," the 38-year-old Beaver County resident said.

A key to the long-term success of Bentrem's Three D Ranch is high-speed internet access. It's something his government has promised — and a promise he maybe won't believe until he's connecting to broadband at his family farm for the first time.

The federal government has allocated approximately $1.5 billion for high-speed internet in Pennsylvania, according to the state's Department of Community and Economic Development.


David Bentrem's Three D Ranch in Burgettstown, PA

About $1.16 billion is provided through the federal Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, also known as B.E.A.D. The state also has received $279 million from the Capital Projects Fund and $6.6 million in federal planning funds.

As Bob Morgan put it: "If you don't have internet, you're a generation behind."

Morgan is the state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program in Pennsylvania. He said broadband connectivity is particularly challenging in the commonwealth because of its challenging topography.

"If you don't travel Pennsylvania, you don't understand it," Morgan said.

"It's not the wide-open plains. We have a lot of hills, valleys, peaks ... it's just absolutely amazing."

Perhaps in part because of these logistical problems, Pennsylvania lags behind its neighbors and the nation in rural broadband.

Just 66% of Pennsylvania farmers reported having access this year, among the lowest percentages in the nation, according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. The national average is 85%.

The commonwealth also trails nearby Maryland (85%), New Hampshire (98%), New Jersey (92%) and New York (82%).

Just 66% of Pennsylvania farmers reported having access this year, among the lowest percentages in the nation, according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. The national average is 85%.

"If you think about that amount of territory that needs to be covered, it's very challenging relative to a lot of other states," said Kyle Kopko, executive director at the Center for Rural Pennsylvania. He noted that the commonwealth's combined rural expanses alone are roughly the size of Utah.


David Bentrem

It's estimated that nearly 300,000 homes and businesses lack high-speed access, and some members of these communities are increasingly frustrated with the wait.

"We hear about it from every region in our commonwealth," said Bailey Thumm, federal affairs specialist for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, which advocates for policies that benefit agriculture and rural communities. "Our members are vocal about it.

"Broadband is not a luxury anymore, it's a necessity."

The technology applications, according to Thumm, vary widely. From a business standpoint, there's online advertising, drone use and other precision ag tools. From a quality-of-life standpoint, there's telemedicine and virtual learning.

"Everyone will thrive from better broadband service," Thumm said, "no matter what generation you're in."

"More and more now we're seeing that direct marketing to consumer. And that direct marketing relies on social media."

Both Thumm and Kopko are personally involved with rural internet expansion through their roles on the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority.

Created in 2021 by a bipartisan vote of the state's General Assembly, the authority is tasked with establishing a broadband plan and then distributing the available taxpayer funding. The deadline for its initial proposal is Dec. 27, and grants to fund the projects are to be awarded in 2024.

"Everyone will thrive from better broadband service," Thumm said, "no matter what generation you're in. More and more now we're seeing that direct marketing to consumer. And that direct marketing relies on social media."

Pennsylvanians who want to request broadband access can contact the authority at 717-425-7599 or pabroadbandauthority@pa.gov.

"We're always open to requests or submissions," Kopko said. "That will be the basis for determining how the money is allocated."

Complementary funding and support for the authority's work may also be found in the 2023 Farm Bill, which remains in development by U.S. Rep. Glenn "GT" Thompson (R-Pa.) and others in Congress.



“Access to reliable, high-speed internet service is critical for rural America and a top priority for me as chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture," Thompson said in a statement to the USA TODAY Network. "I represent a massive rural district encompassing one-third of the landmass of Pennsylvania, and unfortunately, many of my neighbors are on the wrong side of the digital divide. As chairman, I will continue to work to strengthen rural broadband connectivity and revitalize rural America."

These efforts in some ways mirror what happened in America through the 1936 Rural Electrification Act.

At the time it was enacted, just 10% of U.S. farms had access to electricity because it was cost-prohibitive for companies to install the infrastructure in sparsely populated areas. That percentage rose to 80% by 1950 as result of Rural Electrification Act loans, according to the USDA.

As contemporary rural internet expansion plans unfold, Bentrem and many owners of Pennsylvania's 57,000-plus other farms hope their properties make the cut.

If his John Deere equipment breaks down, high-speed internet would enable him to connect with the company to run diagnostics. Broadband would allow him to remotely check his electric fences, to monitor the health of his cattle through smart devices and to virtually meet with bovine veterinarians for telemedicine when those cows are ill.

Further, it could help secure the future of his 550-acre Washington County farm.

Three D Ranch is run by Bentrem; his brother, Dan; and their dad, Doug. Bentrem said he hopes his children and nieces will someday take the helm of the operation, which centers around growing hay and selling grass-fed beef.

Though Bentrem said he thinks the lack of internet and even cable access isn't entirely bad ("No MTV," he said with a chuckle), he believes it makes the ag lifestyle less appealing to the youth.



"I think it's going to be a greater and greater struggle without it. You need it almost as much as you need electricity," he said.

"To a certain extent it does put our kids at a disadvantage," he added, recalling weeknight visits to McDonald's so his daughter could finish her homework using the fast-food restaurant's Wi-Fi.

With the broadband authority primed to invest in potential fiber optic and satellite options by next year, rural Pennsylvanians could see expanded internet options as early as 2025.

Bentrem and his family will be watching. The investments could result in more efficient, cost-effective farming — or a missed opportunity that keeps his multi-generational business locked in the past.

"I think it's going to be a greater and greater struggle without it. You need it almost as much as you need electricity. To a certain extent it does put our kids at a disadvantage."

His internet on the farm is delivered at an upload speed of less than 1 megabit per second. That doesn't cut it for video streaming or practically any other use in 2023.

"To be competitive, to be in today's times, (broadband is) a need," Bentrem said.

"I don't think a lot of people get this. Places and people like us still exist."

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