Reliable, affordable connectivity is critical for producers and growers. A recent report from the USDA predicted big returns across the United States, if rural broadband is provided.

If rural coverage met grower demand, A Case for Rural Broadband predicts “the U.S. agriculture industry would realize benefits equivalent to nearly 18% of total production.”

In real-world dollars, the report says, “USDA’s analysis estimates that connected technologies are poised to transform agricultural production and create a potential $47-$65 billion in annual gross benefit for the United States.”

Before mechanization, hybridization, GMOs — and now precision agriculture — each preceding era was marked by practices that were labor-intensive and difficult to scale. Decision agriculture will make operations more efficient and profitable.

Decision agriculture uses hyperlocal precision farming data to automate processes across an entire operation. Yet a lack of connectivity in rural areas is stalling the adoption of decision ag, as well as its benefits to producers and agribusiness.

24% of rural Americans don’t have broadband coverage

The FCC defines broadband coverage as a minimum of 25 megabits per second download speeds and 3 Mbps upload speeds. According to their Communications Marketplace Report, “Over 24% of Americans in rural areas…lack coverage from fixed terrestrial 25 Mbps/3 Mbps broadband, as compared to only 1.5% of Americans in urban areas.”

What’s worse, these numbers aren’t entirely accurate. In a 2-state pilot, CostQuest and USTelecom found that “current broadband-availability data is wrong in 48% of rural census blocks.”

Forty-eight percent. 

How is it possible that nearly half of broadband data is inaccurate? Thanks to the FCC’s previous reporting rules, an ISP (Internet Service Provider) could report that an entire census block had service, even if just one home in the block had service. Some blocks, especially in rural areas, are larger than 250 square miles. 

Microsoft released their own data claiming that 162.8 million people don’t use broadband internet — more than half of Americans. Clearly, there’s a disturbing lack of broadband access that predominantly affects rural America.

Obstacles to Rural Broadband 

ISPs are resistant to rural broadband for one reason: cost. Service providers say that investing in miles of infrastructure for a low population density means not enough revenue to justify the costs. 

They often raise rural subscription costs to unreasonable levels. What that means for growers is this: 

  • No available coverage for their cropland exists, or 
  • If coverage is available, it’s prohibitively expensive 

In addition to unwillingness from ISPs, the government has been slow to address the rural broadband gap. The FCC estimated that delivering fiber to the remaining households and businesses in the United States would cost $80 billion, which is close to the cost of the entire Health and Human Services department.

So, even amid unaffordable or unavailable rural broadband, how can dealers and their customers take advantage of decision agriculture?

5G to the Rescue?

If you’ve been paying attention to news about wireless technology in the last few years, you may have heard a lot of hype about something called “5G,” but what exactly is it? 5G is a mobile technology standard set by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project, which is the same organization that defined the 3G and 4G LTE mobile technology standards.

The 5G specification isn’t a single concept. 5G actually describes a handful of different technologies and protocols that each contribute to a 5G network’s ability to provide higher bandwidth and lower latency to a greater number of devices than currently possible. A few of the most important concepts include:

  • Individual connections: Base station antennas will be capable of connecting to more individual devices, in part thanks to “beamforming,” which is the ability of the antenna to send narrow beams of radio waves in the direction of the individual devices.
  • Larger bandwidths: By using a higher frequency part of the radio spectrum, 5G is going to allow for much greater bandwidth than is physically possible with current 4G radios. Unfortunately, these “millimeter-band” frequencies have ranges measured in feet, not miles. This is great for congested urban areas where it’s feasible to install multiple small base stations on a single city block. However, this type of radio signal won’t effectively cover large areas or reach distant customers.
  • Low-power and long-range: 5G is also going to encompass low-power, long-range radio technologies. In fact, this new feature is already being used by what we would consider to be 4G technologies. When announcements are made about rolling out additional 5G coverage to new areas, they usually refer to the short-range, high speed base stations to serve areas with higher population density. While the coverage of the low-power, long-range signals may also increase in the future, it isn’t guaranteed.
  • Mesh networks: The 5G standard also includes a protocol for mesh networks. This allows data to “hop” from one end-device to another until it’s in range of a base station. This will be a key strategy to providing coverage for specific places that don’t have direct connection to a base station. This technique works great for devices that are always on and supplied with plenty of power. However, in-field sensors and devices are low-cost, battery-powered, and spend as much time “asleep” as they can. This doesn’t allow them to operate as an interconnected “mesh.”

Connectivity Alternatives to Rural Broadband 

Growers need to use inputs and equipment efficiently in rural areas, often without direct internet access or even line power. Innovative modifications to existing technology allow for devices that make use of low power, low bandwidth, and very long range: the perfect solution for agriculture’s typically remote operations. 

Thanks to innovative tech, now it’s possible to use ag tech in remote areas — without WiFi or wired internet. 

The answer is scalable connectivity. By connecting precision agriculture equipment through a low-cost platform, growers can get insights from the field without unreasonable costs. R5 Core uses upgraded LoRa technology to connect up to 50 devices to a single cellular data Gateway. Rather than paying a cellular or satellite subscription for each device, multiple devices are connected to a cellular Gateway, which then sends data to the cloud. 

In conclusion, decision agriculture relies on connectivity to send field data to the cloud reliably. Yet there is no solution in sight to solve the rural broadband issue. ISPs want to keep their costs of operations low, while federal agencies resist providing coverage to the entire population. For the foreseeable future, a lack of rural broadband continues to be the reality for American growers, dealers, and all of agribusiness. The Connectivity Platform from RealmFive bridges that coverage gap with low-cost, scalable coverage for remote operations and fields. Send us a message to get more information specific to your area. 

This content is brought to you by RealmFive.

RealmFive is changing the way customers interact with agricultural technology in areas including agronomy, inventory, irrigation, livestock, and machinery. Using highly improved long-range radio technology and easy-to-deploy devices RealmFive’s Connectivity Platform enables remote monitoring, control, and data-driven decision-making. The RealmFive Connection Platform is modular and flexible, allowing for simple third-party integration into the platform and a robust API to other digital farming platforms. With an expanding portfolio of applications including soil moisture, weather, irrigation monitoring, and state monitoring, RealmFive is bringing sensor-to-cloud solutions to agriculture.

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