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January 10, 2017 << back >>


Not just any Network: Digital Farming needs Broadband

Digital Farming is largely based on the transmission of data – that is why farmers need network coverage in rural areas to digitize their farms, as we pointed out in the first part of our article. But the speed and the capabilities of the necessary network are vital elements on the way to Digital Farming.

Not just any Internet connection is sufficient for Digital Farming. It has to be reliable and fast, should be able to transmit small as well as large data quantities, and must have the ability to upload and download at a similarly fast rate. The reasons are obvious:

If a farm reorganizes itself towards a more digital production process, it can’t afford to simply stop working if the Internet breaks down for a couple of hours. Weather changes will still occur, the harvest still has to be handled, and cows still need to be milked.

And the important thing is not simply the transmission of data – it has to be in real-time as well. As Tyler B. Mark and Terry Griffin put it in their paper, “Defining the Barriers to Telematics for Precision Agriculture: Connectivity Supply and Demand”: “During planting and harvesting season, slow Internet speeds can mean the difference in getting the crop in before a weather event or suffering yield penalties for an untimely planting or harvest.”

The capability to transmit bigger data packages is especially vital for drone or satellite technology that processes image data. Last but not least, networks have to be able to upload and download data at a certain speed. Because sensors send data (upload) and remote steered tractors receive them (download), both directions are important, even if the majority of digital farming data needs to be uploaded.

Where we stand – right now

Broadband networks fulfill these requirements. However, an analysis by the European Parliamentary Research Service reveals that the U.S. and Europe shows that it isn’t widely available in rural areas. Both have comparable penetration levels for fixed broadband subscriptions, yet differences are visible when it comes to Next Generation Access (NGA) networks, a faster kind of network. In 2011 and 2012, 48 percent of U.S. households in rural areas were covered by them, compared to only 12 percent in Europe.

Reasons for this could be a different regulatory approach: in the U.S., starting in 2003, regulators lifted obligations on established operators who wanted to invest in high-speed DSL and fiber technologies, and they encouraged new ones to construct their own networks. Regulators in the E.U. focused on increasing competition by “unbundling the local loop”, i.e., allowing new entrants to lease the facilities of established operators at wholesale cost. Unfortunately, these new operators did not subsequently build their own networks, while incumbent operators lost incentives to invest in new technologies or networks.

The effects are striking: the “2016 Broadband Progress Report” of the Federal Communications Commission shows that 39 percent of rural Americans do not have access to broadband. By contrast, only 4 percent of urban Americans do not have broadband access. And the European Commission’s report “Broadband Coverage in Europe 2014” showed that NGA networks were available to only 25 percent of rural households in 2014, compared to 32 percent of all E.U. households.

What to do: the politicians’ edition

To increase these numbers, many countries have gotten national broadband plans (NBPs) off the ground in recent years with a focus on greater coverage, better service and policies for implementation. The E.U. addresses this subject in its Digital Agenda for Europe and – more recently – in its Digital Single Market Strategy. Furthermore, it invests in the expansion of broadband infrastructure via the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD), which is expected to contribute €1.5 billion, and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), which is about to contribute €5 billion. The stated intention is to establish a nationwide broadband coverage of above 30 Mbps (megabits per second) by 2020. By that time, 50 percent of the E.U. should even have broadband above 100 Mbps.

In the U.S., a Broadband Opportunity Council was launched in 2015. This government effort to expand broadband deployment and adoption puts a focus on bringing broadband to underserved communities and encourages new operators and new network investments to improve broadband quality and service. In its recent report, it recommends a total of 13 Federal programs – inter alia by the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of Commerce (DOC) and the Department of Treasury (UST) – that will open up or clarify the potential uses for $10 billion in Federal grants and loans for broadband-related activities.