US agriculture increasingly affected by lack of broadband

Martyn Warwick
By Martyn Warwick

Jun 28, 2019

via Flickr © cwwycoff1 (CC BY 2.0)

via Flickr © cwwycoff1 (CC BY 2.0)

  • 29 per cent of US farms still without Internet access
  • Increased pressure to grow more produce as US and global populations rise
  • Agricultural IoT now vital, but useless without bandwidth
  • But but fear not, the FCC Chairman is in favour of "smart farms" so that's alright

By comparison to the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe, farms and ranches in the US can be enormous, maybe not as vast as some sheep stations in Australia, but truly colossal nonetheless. However, across extensive areas of the rural US telecoms technologies and Internet connectivity are limited, expensive and antediluvian. In general, the limited broadband (wireline and wireless) that is available is patchy and slow. As Mr. Spock might have observed, "It's broadband Jim, but not as we'd like to know it".

Now, with the advent of the agricultural IoT, agricultural robotics, self-driving tractors and many other sector-specific apps and services that rely entirely on broadband in general and Wi-Fi in particular, rural America needs inexpensive, reliable, accessible coverage more than ever. Just look at the figures; there are still 24 million Americans who do not have online access, almost every one of them in rural areas, and as the US population continues rapidly to grow, pressures to increase food production will only multiply. And they will further intensify as the world population also increases. Estimates are that the global population, which currently stands at 7.6 billion, will top 10 billion by 2050 - and they'll all have to be fed.

Farmers will have to grow even more food, waste less and deal with the effects of climate change, even if the current US president says that the melting of the glaciers and ice caps is "fake news". And, today, in mid-2019, the US Department of Agriculture estimates that an astonishing 29 per cent of US farms and ranches still have no access to the Internet which, of course, precludes them from using and taking advantage of the new apps and services that broadband will provide. So, no IoT, no sensors in the fields, no robotic farm equipment, no autonomous vehicles, no drones and no access to satellite connectivity equals reduced productivity and that is structural disadvantage writ large. 

Nick Tindall of the US Association of Equipment Manufacturers points out, “There are more lines of computer code in one of today's tractor than there were on the space shuttle, but their capabilities mean nothing if there's no broadband connectivity". How true that is, all the data collected by a myriad of agricultural sensors will, literally, go nowhere without bandwidth and so be completely useless.

As Mark Lewllen, head of spectrum advocacy at the big agricultural machinery manufacturer, John Deere ,says, "We are now creating mobile broadband demand in areas that are not only not on anyone’s map, they are not even in anyone’s thought processes - and the demands for data are only going to increase.''

FCC finally extends a helping hand

It's the same old story, farmers and ranchers need the technologies that will enhance productivity and save on costs but telcos and CSPs are unwilling to spend big money on deploying robust broadband into sparsely-populated rural areas.

But, at long last, the US regulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), is taking the concerns of the agricultural sector on board. Last year, the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act, (part of the 2018 US Farm Bill) included the requirement that a task force to be set up with the specific remit of providing answers to rural broadband issues. Simultaneously, the purpose of another piece of legislation, the AIRWAVES Act, is to is to pump more resources into broadband infrastructure in rural areas. In addition, the FCC has provided US$1.5 billion in subsidies to help develop rural broadband infrastructure.

Now what is needed urgently is cross-ecosystem partnerships (just like the ones CSPs, manufacturers and vendors of comms equipment and infrastructure are always banging on about) but this time involving collaborations with farmers, ranchers, agricultural technology companies, broadband Internet providers and vendors tasked with devising an agreed strategy for the deployment of rural broadband technologies that will satisfy all players.

It's a big ask but the Chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, is now on the case so things henceforth are bound to go swimmingly. Speaking at a press conference on Monday, Mr Pai announced that the FCC is in favour of "smarter farms" and so has formed the Task Force for Reviewing the Connectivity and Technology Needs of Precision Agriculture in the United States (trips lightly off the tongue that one, doesn't it).

He opined, "Better Internet will unlock efficiency, innovation and improvements at farms and ranches" and added, "This is the present and the future of American agriculture and we must do whatever we can to support these producers and enhance precision agriculture".

The Task Force, when it is eventually established (currently the FCC is seeking nominations "to be considered" for places on the 15-person-strong force), will work in tandem with the US Department of Agriculture and will consult with the agricultural and technology industries, state and local governments and various unnamed academic 'experts' to "develop policy recommendations". Yup, it looks like yet another exercise in lumpen, slow-moving bureaucracy so don't expect much sense of urgency or for anything to happen quickly, after all the FCC's goal is to "achieve reliable connections" (whatever that means) "on 95 per cent of agricultural land by 2025" there's five and a half years to fritter away.

Interestingly, no mention is made of the burgeoning marijuana farms now spreading across an increasing number of US states (including California, Oregon, Washington State, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, New  Mexico, New Hampshire and New York) where the drug has been either legalised or decriminalised. Scientific research has already shown that grazing cattle are already developing a taste for that particular type of grass. It's quick and easy to grow but ranchers are a bit wary. They are concerned that if the animals get hooked on munching the flowering and fruiting tops of female cannabis sativa plants the steaks will be too high.

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