While broadband offers connectivity for rural dwellers in their homes, it may not bridge the technology divide between tech-hungry farmers and their inability to send or receive data from the most remote acres of their operations.
Only 58% of households in rural American communities have broadband access as of January 2018, according to new research from the Pew Institute. Broadband adoption grew rapidly between 2000 and 2010, but connectivity has grown sporadically since then. For broadband companies, the cost of installing miles and miles of fiber optic cable underground, compared to the handful of subscribers that they may gain in low population density areas, just doesn’t pencil out.
For rural areas that have been connected to broadband, the services can be expensive, unreliable, or subject to data caps that hamstring its useability.
There’s good reason for internet-less farmers to be kicking and screaming about their lack of connectivity.
A growing number of precision ag tools allow farmers to gain deeper insights into their farming operations through in-field sensors, satellite imagery, and data analytics, but if a farmer cannot connect these in-field sensors and other hardware devices to the cloud where data is stored and transmitted, then the solution is an automatic non-starter.
Tech offerings that farmers could miss out on include sensors that can detect mastitis in dairy cows, and remote weather data stations and drone-captured high-resolution satellite images that can tell farmers whether they’re applying the right amount of inputs, whether pest or disease is imminent, and how much yield they should anticipate. Applied properly, the decision support that precision ag tools offer can help farmers make more money while using resources more efficiently.
Independent broadband company coalition Dakota Carrier Network is taking matters into its own hands. The coalition has invested over $100 million per year in the last decade to create broadband infrastructure, while broadband services company Midco has also helped move the needle in the Upper Midwest portion of the state.
Both companies recently acknowledged broadband’s limitations at the Precision Ag conference, however, suggesting that fixed wireless, which transmits wireless coverage throughout the air at reasonable speed and reliability, could be a viable solution to expand connectivity from the couch to the field.
A number of farmers and members of rural communities have also decided to get proactive about addressing their lack of connectivity, banding together to create innovative solutions and workarounds. And some of these efforts are working.
The White House is Making Moves
Aware of the lack of rural connectivity, President Trump issued two executive orders that were intended to remove some of the red tape preventing broadband infrastructure construction by giving private companies access to government radio towers and properties and cutting down on the paperwork that private companies have to complete to get approval to build internet.
Has the Trump Administration made good on its promise to make rural Americans a bigger priority? Earlier this month it released an update on its American Broadband Initiative. According to its findings, the USDA is preparing to spend $600 million on an innovative broadband pilot program that will prioritize bringing broadband to rural areas. You can read more about the project here.
A pair of Senators from North Dakota and Minnesota also recently introduced a bill that would create the Office of Rural Broadband. The proposed agency would be responsible for helping coordinate relevant federal agencies’ efforts to address gaps in broadband service while reducing barriers to deploying connectivity.
Filling Connectivity Gaps in the Meantime
Farmers in rural areas may be some way off from having reliable high-speed wifi touching every corner of their farms, but a few startups are already creating solutions to help fill in the connectivity gaps. Many of these technologies rely on so-called mesh networks, which enable devices to communicate with one another without the internet and ultimately to a central hub that is connected to the internet. The central hub transmits data into a software platform or to the cloud as needed.
Launched in 2009, New Jersey-based Gotham Analytics has been building mesh networks with remote devices powered by solar and connected to satellites. It can connect virtually any hardware device to its network including soil sensors and weather stations by plugging them into its proprietary in-field adapters. Even better, the company can read data from any device through software installed on each base cell. Brazilian digital ag company Solinftec, an AgFunder portfolio company, is also using mesh networks to assist sugar cane farmers in remote areas with a verifiable record of their harvest and traceability from the farm truck to the mill. The startup recently opened offices in the US. 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.
Outside of the US, ag data startup Farmers Edge tapped mesh network technology to connect its devices in Brazil’s Matto Grosso, where farmers lack cellular coverage. While there is an upfront cost to Farmers Edge in installing these networks, the business provides a long-term solution for the local farmers, according to company CEO Wade Barnes.
In Australia, where there are vast expanses of low-density populations, various startups are helping farmers get connected. Observant, which was 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.
Founded as a joint venture between Discovery Ag, an ag data startup founded by Australian ag retailer Delay Agribusiness, and National Narrowband Network Co, Connected Garden has started to roll out a rural internet of things.
Corporate investor Qualcomm Ventures, which is the venture arm of the global wireless tech company, has even described Rural America’s lack of connectivity as an exciting opportunity. It’s invested in a variety of agtech startups including Israeli end-to-end internet of things platform for indoor and outdoor farms Prospera, Indian agribusiness marketplace Ninjacart, and Chinese farm data platform Farm Easy. QV is also an LP in the BR Startup Fund, a Brazilian early-stage technology fund backed by Monsanto, Microsoft, and other strategic corporate players.