coverage to all of the areas of the country. In this case, benefits to society as a whole can exceed the investment costs. Rural areas may be particularly at risk because customer density is low.
Development of the communications infrastructure may be an important stimulus for rural economic development. Congress requested that the General Accounting Office study how Internet and high-speed telecommunications access for rural areas could be promoted for economic development purposes through new and existing federal programs (General Accounting Office, 1996). The Telecommunications Act of 1996, although not specifically addressing precision agriculture, regulates the competitive framework within which information technology services will be provided in rural areas. Within that framework, state telecommunications regulatory agencies, state and local governments and other rural institutions, such as university extension departments, will have an interest in encouraging rural access to advanced telecommunications. Access to skilled labor and up-to-date information about technical processes and market conditions have been important reasons for concentrating industries in certain locations in the past, leading to faster growth in urban than in rural areas (Krugman, 1993). Modern communications are reducing the advantages of geographic concentration.
If competitors of the United States in global food and fiber markets adopt precision agriculture technology more readily than do domestic producers and are perceived to gain an economic advantage, public policies encouraging precision agriculture adoption may be developed to maintain global competitiveness. The President's Council on Sustainable Development found precision agriculture to be one of the environmental technologies that offer potential for domestic economic development through increases to domestic productivity and development of export markets in environmental technology (Sustainable Agriculture Task Force, 1996).
Although the notion of universal access to telecommunications has been embodied in federal policy documents such as Principles for a National Information Infrastructure, it is unclear whether and how universal access will become a reality (U.S. Information Infrastructure Task Force, 1995). Some experts suggest that the competition created by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 will be sufficient; others believe federal subsidies comparable to the rural electrification programs will be needed. In either case, access to information services will affect rural areas. To the extent that it takes place in different forms and at different rates of implementation, equity issues will arise. Advocacy groups are already concerned about disenfranchisement of information-poor socioeconomic groups. This potential exists in rural areas, particularly areas without activities such as precision agriculture providing an impetus for commercial enterprises to provide services.
Fast, reliable Internet access in remote rural areas will affect precision agriculture approaches that rely on regional aggregation and distribution of data or