MILFORD — At the Midwest Feeding Co. feedlot a couple of miles north of town, hundreds of cattle are tracked daily.
Ear tags manufactured by Quantified Ag measure body temperature, activity levels, feeding patterns and other factors in an effort to identify sick animals before they start showing outward symptoms.
"Real-time data tells which animals need to be pulled for illness or other issues," said Andrew Uden, chief operations officer for Lincoln-based Quantified Ag.
To gather its data, the company needs a constant internet connection so it can transmit data from the ear tags to a fixed station, something that can be difficult in rural areas.
Midwest Feeding Co. has DSL broadband service coming into its office, as well as a wireless network set up to cover a portion of the lot.
But Quantified Ag found the system to be unreliable, with connections going down several times a week, said Alex Heine, the company's business development manager.
The solution it came up with was to take advantage of strong cellular service from a nearby tower.
Quantified Ag's experiences at the feedlot, which is about 10 miles from Seward and 20 miles from Lincoln, highlight challenges that businesses, farmers and residents in rural areas face when it comes to internet service.
Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr got an up-close look at Quantified Ag's system Tuesday morning. It was the first stop on Carr's tour of Nebraska to see rural and community broadband deployments. Carr was headed to Columbus and Stanton later Tuesday for roundtable discussions with Sen. Deb Fischer, and is scheduled to be in North Bend and Fremont on Wednesday.
He also is planning visits to Iowa and South Dakota later in the week.
Carr said making sure rural residents and businesses have access to internet service is a priority for the FCC.
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"I want Milford to have the same opportunity as someone living in New York, but that's going to take a lot of work," he said.
Much of that work deals with how best to deploy the limited resources the federal government has, which involves "making sure dollars are going to truly underserved areas," Carr said.
It's also about what infrastructure will work the best in what areas.
It's not feasible, for example, to run wired internet connections over wide swaths of the rural U.S., where there are few customers, Carr said, which is why there needs to be a mix of wired and wireless internet offerings as well as cellular. Satellite internet is increasing in use as well, he said.
The FCC uses the Universal Service Fund, which gets its money from a tax on phone service, to help subsidize rural telecommunications projects.
In July, the FCC is holding an auction for companies to bid on subsidies worth $2 billion over 10 years for new rural internet projects.
Carr said getting decent internet service to rural areas drives efficiency and also has a "tremendous" amount of economic upside.
Some examples of efficiencies he gave include the use of "smart" tractors, drones used in agriculture, and telehealth services for people with limited access to doctors.
Quantified Ag offers an example of an economic boost.
The company itself, which is still in a beta testing mode and hoping to launch commercially late this year or early next, has nearly a dozen employees on its payroll. It also can save its customers a lot of money.
Uden said that while it can cost an operation $5,000 or more to get the system up and running, on a per-head basis, it's only about $15. Considering producers spend $40-$50 a head on health costs on average, it can lead to huge cost savings if sick animals are identified and treated early.
"Save one dead animal per pen and you've more than paid for the cost," Uden said.
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