Opinion

This Ag Week Presents New Challenges for Rural America

COVID-19 presents an array of new threats to cities as well as rural America. Mitigating against these risks calls for new practices and behaviors. Though unfamiliar, our course in the face of these threats often relies on familiar tools and technologies, like mobile devices. Staying connected lets many of us access updated information from authorities and enables many to work remotely. For some, these devices allow us to stay close figuratively while literal closeness remains ill-advised.

For many across the United States, new approaches to how we gather, and how we don’t, may be the most poignant uprooting to our usual way of life.  For example, this year’s Ag Week and Ag Day (March 22-28) are among the expansive catalog of cancelled and postponed events.  Since it began in 1973, Ag Week has aimed to increase our understanding and appreciation for sources of our food, the people, processes, and economic benefits of U.S. agriculture.

Connectivity has been critical to modern farming long before these recent threats to our health and the economy. Mobile devices have become essential to so many parts of the agricultural ecosystem. A recent survey of farmers revealed 86 percent of them viewed their mobile electronic devices as either “Essential” or “Very Important” in their operations and near unanimous opposition to government actions that would impede the availability of mobile devices.

Unfortunately, the U.S. International Trade Commission could close the U.S. market to more than 90 percent of mobile devices as a remedy in a patent dispute. As a result, millions of American consumers, farmers and small businesses could face massive disruptions.

To produce food for hundreds of millions of people in the United States and overseas, U.S. farmers have adopted mobile technologies that revolutionize the way they manage their operations. Apps enable them to irrigate and apply pesticides with precision, identify the first signs of disease in crops and livestock, and communicate with customers and contractors simultaneously, all while they are in the field. In the face of uncertainty about international trade battles and concerns about environmental stewardship, mobile technology is indispensable to farmers struggling to stay productive and competitive.

Mobile devices play a critical role in addressing the stubborn challenge of bringing high-speed internet access to rural areas. Dependence on smart phones for internet access is especially common for rural, low-income, and minority households according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey.

As policymakers strive to bridge the rural-urban divide on high-speed internet access, mobile technology plays a critical part in advancing the next generation of telecommunications technology, making it imperative for farmers to have access to the latest mobile technology that will enable the transformation of agriculture. A sweeping import ban would create serious challenges for individual farmers and the entire industry.

The latest threat of an import ban stems from contested claims by Neodron, an Ireland-based patent troll formed just six months before it filed its first case against major household names in the U.S. mobile technology market, including Amazon, Dell, HP, Microsoft, Motorola and Samsung. Recently Neodron filed a second complaint that targets Apple in addition to ASUS, LG and Sony. Patent trolls like Neodron do not make anything. Instead, they exist only to acquire patents and then sue in search of big settlements.

Neodron has gone to U.S. court over the matter, which is the long-established arbiter of patent disputes. But it also petitioned the ITC in a separate case for tactical reasons. The ITC’s only remedy against unfairly traded goods is to ban them with an exclusion order, assuming this is in the public interest. A product ban is a nuclear bomb of a remedy that Neodron does not actually want, because it would get no money.  But it obviously hopes this catastrophic threat could leverage a hefty settlement.

Should the ITC agree to this ban, an exclusion order would apply to more than 90 percent of smartphones as well as more than 90 percent of tablets for the U.S. market. Shutting these products out would disrupt the lives farmers and rural communities across America.

An exclusion order would undermine the urgent efforts to bridge the rural-urban divide in internet access. Innovations depend upon rural communities’ continued access to affordable smart devices.

Closing the market to the vast majority of mobile devices will harm rural America and our agriculture industry, among others. The ITC must not prioritize patent troll profits over connectivity, particularly at a time when mobile devices are especially critical for protecting the public interest and preserving our way of life.

Betsy Huber is the president of the National Grange.

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