Land O’ Lakes CEO Demands Government Fund High Speed Internet Access For All
Land O’ Lakes CEO, Beth Ford is concerned the ‘digital divide’ has and could further cost those residents there jobs, education, and economic progress. (Only 65% of rural residents have access to fixed-line high-speed Internet, compared to 97% of those in urban areas). The coronavirus pandemic has been particularly hard on rural families with school-age children. Land O’ Lakes is a cooperative owned by farmers and others in the agriculture industry, putting Ford in close touch with the needs of rural communities.
At Fortune Global Forum HP CEO Enrique Lores agreed....
“I think that in the last six months we’ve learned about the many gaps we have in our country, whether it’s the digital divide or systemic racism.”
Ford went on to say....
“Teachers are having to drive out to farms with paper homework so that kids can have an education,” said Ford. “It’s unacceptable … This is very basic wiring that’s missing in these communities.”
Ford estimates that wiring rural America will cost $100 billion, but she described rural broadband as a matter of national security.
“We need something like a 1930s rural electrification program to fill these gaps,” Ford said, referring to the Rural Electrification Act (REA), an initiative to fund the creation of rural electrical infrastructure that began under the Franklin Roosevelt administration as part of the New Deal. (As few as 10% of U.S. farms had electricity in 1930. But by the mid-1950s, the REA had helped create over 1,000 rural electrical cooperatives and electrified nearly all U.S. farms.)
Ford argues that rural broadband is necessary not just to increase educational opportunity and improve job creation in those areas, but because new data-driven approaches to farming promise big economic and environmental advantages. (Democrats in the new House coronavirus relief bill set aside $80 billion for rural broadband. Some states like Tennessee have already allocated some of their state relief funding to rural broadband.
Until the federal deadlock ends, Land O’ Lakes and HP are working on their own, smaller-scale solutions to the digital divide. Those include Land O’ Lakes partnering with Microsoft to install rural Wi-Fi, and HP’s Refresh program, which refurbishes computing equipment for donation to lower-income students and schools.