An article in Via Satellite discussed John Deere’s interest in using low-orbit satellite broadband as the platform to expand smart farming. This makes perfect sense because there is no quicker way to bring broadband coverage to all of the farms in the world.
There are only a few other technologies that might be able to fill the farm broadband gap. The one we’ve been thinking about for the last decade is cellular, but there is a major reluctance of the big cellular companies to invest in the needed rural cellular towers and to constantly upgrade electronics for cell sites that have only a few customers. If you’ve ever traveled to the upper Midwest, you’ve stood on farm roads where agricultural fields stretch to the horizon in every direction. Standing in such a place makes you realize that cellular is not the answer. No carrier will invest in a cell tower where the potential customers are a few farms and the farm machinery. No farmer wants to pay a cellular bill large enough to support a single cell tower.
There is also experimentation with the use of permanent blimps that can provide broadband coverage over a several-county area. I wrote a blog last year about a trial with blimps in Indiana. It’s an interesting idea, and it may be a good way to support self-driving equipment. But the big downside to blimps is the ability to handle millions of sensors and to process huge amounts of data in real-time, like the monstrously large data files created by surveying fields for a wide variety of soil conditions. I also have to wonder about the ability to replicate this technology outside of prosperous farming areas in the US.
Before John Deere or anybody decides that satellites are the answer to smart agriculture, we need to know more about the real-life capabilities of satellites constellations. Big data users like cell sites and farms could bog down a satellite network and lower the usefulness for retail ISP services.
I think we’re going to quickly find out if satellite technology has a limited capacity – something we learned with earthbound networks a long time ago. An individual satellite is the equivalent of a broadband node device like a DSLAM for DSL or an OLT used in FTTP. Local broadband devices are subject to being overwhelmed by a few heavy data users. There is a reason that we use separate networks today to support cell towers and home broadband – because both would suffer by being on the same node.
The article raised this question and quoted a John Deere engineer as saying that the ideal situation would be for John Deer to own a satellite constellation. Putting the cost issue aside, space is going to get to be far too busy if we allow individual corporations to put up fleets of satellites. It’s not hard to imagine a John Deere constellation, a Verizon cellular constellation, a FedEx constellation, etc. The sky could get incredibly crowded.
The alternative is for the handful of satellite companies to sell access to corporations like John Deere. And that means somehow satisfying hugely different broadband needs from a satellite constellation. It’s not hard to imagine Starlink preferring big farms and cell sites over residential subscribers. Farmers and cellular companies are likely willing to spend more than households, but will expect priority service for the higher fees.
I’m sure that the satellite companies are flooded with unique requests for ways to use the satellites. If I owned a satellite constellation, I would likely pursue the most lucrative, highest-margin customers, and it’s hard to think somebody like Starlink won’t do the same. If they do, there will either be a limit on the number of residential customers they can accept or a degraded level of broadband for customers not willing to pay a premium corporate rate.