What’s the Best Way to Help Precision Agriculture?

The FCC is going to take a fresh look at the $9 billion 5G fund this month and it sounds like the grant program will get delayed again while the FCC figures out where to deploy the money. The fund idea has been roiled in controversy since the beginning when it became clear that the big cellular companies were providing false data about existing cellular coverage.

Buried inside this fund is $1 billion in grants intended to help precision farming. Precision farming needs bandwidth, and apparently, the FCC has decided that the bandwidth should be cellular. I was frankly surprised to see such a specific earmark. The current FCC and administration have clearly climbed on the 5G bandwagon, but it seems premature to me to assume that cellular will be the winning technology for precision agriculture.

This funding means that the cellular companies will get a free, or highly subsidized network and will then be able to bill farmers for providing the bandwidth needed for smart tractors and for the millions of field sensors that the industry predicts will be deployed to monitor crops and livestock.

This all sounds great and shows that the government is working to help solve one of our biggest broadband needs. But it also means that the FCC hopes to hand the agribusiness revenue stream to cellular companies. This feels to me like another victory for the cellular lobbyists – their companies get free government handouts that will lead to lucrative long-term monopoly revenue streams.

If the FCC was doing its job right, we’d be seeing a far different approach. There are multiple wireless technologies that can be leveraged for smart agriculture.

  • Cellular technology is an option, but it’s not necessarily the best technology to cover big swaths of farmland. The coverage area around a cell tower is only a few miles and it requires a huge number of rural cell sites to provide universal cellular broadband coverage in farming areas.
  • Another option is LoRaWAN, a technology that is perfect for providing small bandwidth to huge numbers of sensors over a large area. This technology was discussed in a recent blog talking about the deployment of a LoRaWAN blimp in Indiana.
  • By default, early farm sensors are using WiFi, which is something farms can implement locally, at least in barns and close to farm buildings.

All these technologies require broadband backhaul, and this could be provided by fiber or satellites. If the 5G grants and the current RDOF grants are spent wisely there will be fiber built deeply into farming counties. Satellite broadband could fill in for the most remote farms.

Ideally, the FCC would be considering the above technologies and any others that could help agribusiness. Agriculture is our largest industry and it seems callous to stuff money to solve the problem inside an FCC grant program that might not even be awarded for several years and that then will allow for six more years to build the networks – that would push solutions out for at least a decade into the future.

Instead, the FCC should be establishing a smart farming grant program to see what could be done now for this vital sector of our economy. The FCC should be funding experimental test trials to understand the pros and cons of using cellular, WiFi, satellite, or LoRaWAN bandwidth to talk to farm devices. The results of such trials would then be used to fund a farming broadband grant program that would deploy farm broadband in an expeditious manner – a lot sooner than a decade from now.

The FCC should not be automatically awarding money to cellular companies to control the budding smart farming industry. If we took the time to look at this scientifically, we’d find out which technology is the most suitable and sustainable. For example, one of the driving factors in creating smart farming is going to be the power needs for sensors using the different wireless technologies. It may turn out that the best solution is cellular – but we don’t know that. But that’s not going to stop the FCC from marching forward with $1 billion in grants without ever having looked hard at the issue. This sounds like just another giveaway to the big carriers to me.