Guest Opinions

FCC's Ajit Pai: What I learned about tech from Idaho miners, farmers and firefighters

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in Idaho last week.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in Idaho last week. Ajit Pai from Twitter

A potato farm in King Hill. A mine in Mullan. A hops farm in Wilder. A Department of Veterans Affairs health care facility in Boise. These might seem to have nothing in common, but there’s an important connection: technology. Each relies on digital communications to deliver products and services.

I saw this for myself last week during a terrific trip to Idaho. Adam Crane showed me how Crane Farms uses everything from an LTE-based soil analysis app to drones to improve productivity and reduce costs on his potato farm. The folks at Hecla Mining explained how miners two miles below ground rely on fiber and Wi-Fi to keep in touch, which is vital to safety. They’re also evaluating potential new, 150-ton equipment using virtual reality, which I had a chance to try out. Brock Obendorf explained how the world’s fourth-largest hop producer is boosted by sensors that monitor the soil and advanced machinery that improves efficiency. And in Boise, the VA is doing some amazing work on telemedicine, enabling those who served in America’s armed forces to get mental health consultations, basic medical exams, and much more.

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Brock Obendorf is the world’s fourth-largest hop producer. He talked with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai about technology that improves his Parma farm's efficiency. Ajit Pai from Twitter

All in all, visits like these made it clear to me that Idaho is a state full of innovative, can-do people who are making our nation’s economy and society stronger.

But it all depends on connectivity. And in that regard, we aren’t yet where we want to be. There are millions of Americans, including many in Idaho, who can’t get high-speed Internet access. And there are too many areas with insufficient broadband competition. Closing this “digital divide” is the FCC’s top priority.

I’m proud to say that we’re doing a lot to address that priority. Last week, the FCC increased funding for telemedicine by 43%, or $171 million a year. Next month, we’ll kick off a program to promote fixed broadband (that is, high-speed home Internet access) in unserved parts of the country. And we’re continuing to modernize our rules to make it easier to install the infrastructure that’s needed to promote access in rural America—places like Plummer, where Valerie Fast Horse’s Red Spectrum Communications is connecting the Coeur D’Alene Reservation.

Notably, Idaho isn’t waiting around for Washington when it comes to communications; it’s taking the lead. For instance, community leaders in Ammon showed me how a unique dark-fiber open access system helps improve local Internet access. The Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls is doing really important work on spectrum, which will be critical to U.S. leadership in wireless innovation. And the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise shared how communications services enable courageous professionals to battle deadly fires across the country.

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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai at the National Interagency Fire Center with NIFC spokeswoman Jessica Gardetto. Ajit Pai from Twitter

On a personal note, Idaho was the last of these United States that I’ve had a chance to visit. But I won’t wait long to come back. For one thing, the state’s physical beauty is stunning, from the Shoshone Falls outside Twin Falls to the Craters of the Moon Monument and Preserve. But I also loved the hospitality and resiliency of Idahoans. In so many ways, the Gem State is ahead of the pack, and I hope to hear more of your stories in the future.

Ajit Pai is chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.