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Farmers And Professors May Be Paving The Way For Rural Data Centers

Education and agribusiness may pave the way for new data center markets, and experts say they could get "Grandma in Farmville" high-speed internet in the process. 

An aerial photograph of the NSA's Utah data center campus.

The landmark $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill signed into law by President Joe Biden this week provides financing for what could be an unprecedented expansion of fiber networks across the U.S., much of it with the stated goal of providing broadband internet access to the millions of Americans, many in rural areas, without it.

But not all broadband is created equal, and even billions in federal subsidies may not be enough to incentivize major service providers to give many rural regions the kind of fiber infrastructure that will create opportunities for data center development and continue to meet ever-increasing internet performance standards. 

Which previously underserved regions are likely to get their fiber? The answer, industry insiders say, will be determined largely by the agricultural industry and rural research universities. With ballooning needs for high-performance computing, experts say these sectors will serve as the anchor tenants for the fiber, data centers and digital infrastructure that will pull certain rural areas across the digital divide. 

“You can’t just push out the infrastructure and hope that people will use it — you have to have an anchor tenant to draw the need,” Aligned Data Centers Chief Innovation Officer Phill Lawson-Shanks said. “I think agriculture is probably going to be one of those and education will be one of those to draw the requirements to build out new faster bandwidths.” 

The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocates $65B over 10 years to expanding broadband infrastructure throughout the United States. The lion’s share of this funding comes in the form of block grants that must be used to expand broadband access into underserved areas. According to Federal Communications Commission data from 2020, nearly 1 in 5 rural households in the United States lacks access to broadband, which is not available in many sparsely populated regions. The internet, in these areas, means dial-up or 3G wireless connections. 

Yet upgrading these regions to broadband does not necessarily mean providing fiber connections. The bill defines broadband as internet that exceeds 100 megabits per second for downloads, and this minimum requirement can be met through wireless networks or by satellite. Advocates say these solutions can be rolled out faster and more cheaply than laying optical fiber cables. 

There is broad agreement that, all other things being equal, broadband service through fiber is the preferred option. In addition to faster speeds, fiber networks can be upgraded at far less expense than the alternatives. Critics fear that, with broadband usage growing 40% in the past year alone and ever-increasing speed standards, non-fiber solutions to bring broadband to rural areas could quickly become outdated. The infrastructure bill itself prioritizes fiber connections as the most future-proof solution.

“It needs to be the mentality of a dig once process,” said Adam Noll, a founding partner at Tenebris Fiber, a network infrastructure provider based in Virginia. “If you think about the history of the deployment of fiber, you’d get fiber being deployed and you’d think, 'this is huge, we’re never going to need to overbuild this, we’re done.' But in reality, every time we’ve deployed larger and larger fiber counts, hugely dense fiber counts in smaller diameters, we’ve always seemed to need more.”

But the major internet service providers like Verizon and Xfinity readily acknowledge that, even with federal subsidies, it makes little business sense to build out fiber into communities where user fees will generate little return on investment. Building out dense rural fiber, experts say, will require anchor tenants: large commercial or nonprofit entities with massive computing needs that don’t have the ability to relocate to areas with better connectivity. Many point to agriculture and higher education as the industries that will pull some rural communities across the digital divide and, in doing so, necessitate data center development. 

“I think of Grandma in Farmville being a beneficiary, but the driver is the business applications,” Evoque Data Center Solutions Vice President of Strategy Drew Leonard said. “In rural communities, imagine there’s going to be a mandate that we have to measure the amount of methane at the local level that cows are producing — that requires sensors and data collection and that’s going to have to go somewhere and aggregate somewhere.”


The agriculture industry is already increasingly utilizing connected devices and the Internet of Things, with growing adoption of technologies like remotely operated vehicles and sensors giving real-time information on everything from moisture to soil conditions for individual plants. Leonard points to John Deere’s current line of farm equipment, which now collects a range of data that the company uses AI to analyze and provide guidance to farmers on everything from irrigation needs to when crops should be harvested. 

But these technologies are useless to American farmers if their best connection is 3G wireless. In a global marketplace, experts say U.S. farmers need fiber to compete. 

“If you look at what’s happening in Europe, particularly in the Netherlands, where there’s enormous fields of all sorts of produce, they have one farmer who’s driving robotic tractors, everything is satellite driven and they’re using drones to look at where they need to water,” Aligned’s Lawson-Shanks said. “That’s moving over here slowly, but they need connectivity, so as a use case, that’s driving the need.”

Higher education, particularly research universities in largely rural states, is also likely to be a primary driver of fiber infrastructure in previously underserved areas. Across the STEM fields, cutting-edge research on everything from genetic sequencing to aerospace engineering requires computing power on a scale that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. This level of computing would need access to cloud infrastructures and nearby data centers, and that requires fiber. 

Jeff Uphues is the CEO of DC Blox, a data center and connectivity provider in the Southeast that works with a number of universities. He says many rural institutions will need significantly improved connectivity if they want to stay competitive in STEM fields and attract top talent. This makes them willing partners for the kinds of rural fiber projects envisioned in the infrastructure bill. 

“What we’re seeing in every market where we’re tied into a university, every single university has said that they cannot get a top-tier professor to their university or get major grants unless they have high-performance computing environments that need 35 kilowatts per cabinet,” Uphues said. “The ability to do that is really going to change a lot of this digital divide.”

Tenebris Fiber’s Noll said he wouldn’t be surprised to see data center clusters emerge in areas where agriculture or higher education provides a compelling use case that convinces service providers to build out high-density fiber, especially if there is low-cost power available. As such, some areas could go from the digital dark ages to regional connectivity hubs. 

“It doesn’t take much to be the tipping point for larger companies to be able to move into the rural space if they have all the magic ingredients that the data center guys need,” Noll said. “As that connectivity is rolled out, it gives a chance for industry to grow and provides an opportunity where you’re going to be serving a greater need of serving the broadband issue, which is what this whole thing is designed around.”