A vast island stretching 1.9 billion acres, oceans away from other countries, Australia was always going to have some connectivity issues. But with a $49 billion government plan to roll out broadband internet across the country, you’d expect the developed nation to be in a better situation than it is. The country’s internet speed trails emerging nations such as Thailand and Kenya, and the World Economic Forum placed Australia last for internet access affordability in 2016.
For Australia’s rural regions, the situation is far worse and having next-to-no internet access — through broadband or 4G — is commonplace. But in an age of increasing digitization across industries, and now, in agriculture, the situation is no longer acceptable, particularly as farmers are increasingly keen to digitize their farms.
According to a Commonwealth Bank Agri Insights survey of 1,400 Australian farmers, 76% see the value of sharing on-farm production data with others, with 58% of farmers already doing so. The survey, published in October 2016, also shows that the agriculture sector is generally receptive to potential productivity gains associated with the deployment of digital technologies, with 70% of respondents agreeing that the technology available would bring significant value to their operations, and 20% expecting to increase technology investment in the next 12 months.
Digitization of the farm involves various technologies, but core among them are sensors, which can measure various metrics on the farm such as soil moisture, rainfall, crop health, water levels, and livestock data on the ground or remotely — from a drone or satellite.
Access to the internet is essential for many of these digital agriculture technologies, as the sensors need a connection to connect to one another and to a central hub and software platform. They also often store and process much of the data they’re collecting in the cloud.
There are startups that have found ways around this, and it’s becoming an increasingly essential feature to do so as they realize the limitations of broadband access in many regions globally.
Australian startup Observant, which was recently acquired by Jain Irrigation, created a local network of its own to connects its devices that measure water usage on the farm and control water pumps. Drone imagery analytics startup SlantRange performs much of its image processing on board its drone sensor, giving farmers instant insights in the field, without the need for cellular connectivity and cloud connection. And Gotham Analytics has built a business on creating mesh networks to connect devices locally.
Relying on startups, with limited funding and a lot of risk, to take on the burden of connecting farms is not a scalable or sustainable solution. In Australia, a local initiative called Connected Country is hoping to help by enabling all IoT devices and data analytics companies to function in rural areas.
Founded as a joint venture between Discovery Ag, an ag data startup founded by Australian ag retailer Delay Agribusiness, and National Narrowband Network Co (NNNCo), Connected Garden has started to roll out a rural internet of things.
The joint venture will enable farmers to use different sensors and actuators in the field and pull data without an internet connection.
Discovery Ag, which is focused on creating risk mitigation products for growers using data collected from the farm, soon realized the limitation in collecting that data and started looking into communications options, according to Alicia Garden, CEO of the business.
“Forty percent of what we were doing had to be manually corrected, which prevented the spread of our product as we had to find partners that could collect that info for us [instead of the farmers via sensors on the farm], but we want to make sure we take a science-based approach without bias so now this network will make our product more seamless and automated and available for all farmers on the ground as well,” said Garden.
“We stumbled across the LoRaWAN network,” she said. LoRaWAN is a low-power, wide area network that enables bi-directional communication between devices and localization, and, via gateways, relays messages between end-devices and a central network server in the backend without the need for complex local installations.
“Gateways are connected to the network server via standard IP connections while end-devices use single-hop wireless communication to one or many gateways,” reads the Lora Alliance website. “All end-point communication is generally bi-directional, but also supports operation such as multicast enabling software upgrade over the air or other mass distribution messages to reduce the on-air communication time.”
There are different frequency channels and data rates ranging from 0.3 kbps to 50 kbps.
“There are significant tech heavyweights behind Lora tech such as Cisco and Semtech, and it’s a publicly available option,” said Garden.
Connected Country will charge users on a subscription basis per connected device at a price point cheaper than 4G, according to Garden who wouldn’t disclose the cost at this stage.
The roll out of Connected Country has started and is set to cover 1 million acres next week with a goal of crossing the whole of New South Wales by next year, and the whole corn cropping belt by the end of 2018. The JV chose NSW as the first place to roll it out due to the state’s large customer base for Delta Ag, Discovery Ag’s parent company.
“Until now, some forward-thinking farmers have created standalone networks to cover their farms, but that’s largely been exclusive to really large farms where the investment is worth it. There’s also a big learning curve associated with this, and you’re essentially becoming a network operator, and you need to ensure security and proper data management,” she added.
While Discovery Ag has the agriculture industry particularly in mind, the network will also be relevant to other industries, according to Garden.
Whether this LoRaWan network is the scalable solution to Australia farming’s connectivity woes remains to be seen. The technology is limited mainly to data so could never be used to transmit phone calls or other communications. How quickly and efficiently it can be rolled out, and the overall cost, are also unknowns.
An Australian agtech entrepreneur said: “I don’t believe in networks for devices only, in regional areas; I can’t see the economics ever working. I think there is a far more interesting approach which would be to investigate community-owned telco infrastructure — that also plays well into trends around maker community and developing new skills in regional areas. Australian communities happily own and operate water infrastructure; why should telco be any different?”
Until we see other initiatives take shape, however, Connected Country is certainly a step in the right direction.