Rural Broadband Expansion Promises Improved AgTech Solutions

Farmers want to farm, not wait on digital files to upload. How “smart” can your farm be and how will “digital solutions” help when your rural internet connectivity is slow, spotty and in some cases, non-existent? Well, there’s plenty of good news about future connectivity for America’s farmers. Even for the most remote and unpopulated areas of the U.S. heartland, better internet is on its way. Imaginative and creative solutions are rapidly chipping away at the rural-urban digital divide. Eventually, farmers will have at their fingertips the high-speed connectivity and digital advantages city-folks already enjoy.

Rural Connectivity and AgTech to Help Farms Profit

Tools like geospatial field mapping using satellite imaging, field sensors, agronomic and fertility monitoring systems, geotagged photos, drones and aerial imagery partnered with data analytics and management systems bring a new level of insight and accuracy to farming. 

That’s helping farmers make more money. Midwestern corn and soy producers that adopted and optimized digital farming solutions averaged almost $90 of additional profit per acre, as noted in a March 2020 survey. 

Meanwhile, improved rural connectivity along with more digital and tech farming solutions are projected to add $500 billion value to the global gross domestic product by 2030, according to a leading U.S. digital consultant.

But currently, thirty-nine percent of people living in the rural areas of the U.S. lack access to high-speed broadband, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). And 29% of U.S. farms do not have access to the internet at all. 
About one-quarter of U.S. farmers use connected equipment and data to access data. They run that on low-band 2G or 3G networks that often won’t support multiple devices or lack the ability for real-time data transfer.

…if you’re stuck in the fields with a cell phone with no service or in your farmhouse office taking two hours to download a photo, agtech and smart farming feels like pie-in-the-sky talk. And how do you organize and what do you do with all that data when you do get it? 

So, obviously, there’s a long way to go for rural connectivity for many farmers.

The telecommunications sector is excited about the coming “5G network,” a mobile, high-speed cellular network, but farmers shouldn’t count on 5G. Most industry analysts say 5G is unlikely to be deployed in rural areas, although it may provide slightly improved service in some areas by overlaying onto current 4G networks.

However, there are other innovations — less discussed but with better potential impact for farmers than the ballyhooed “5G network” — in the works. 

Not only are existing technologies getting better and being expanded, but creative new connectivity innovations are in the pipeline for rural communities. Some of them have already started coming online.

LEO Satellites Bringing Global Rural Internet

Elon Musk’s SpaceX program has launched nearly 900 Floating Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites into orbit as of October 2020. Other companies, including Amazon, are launching their own LEO satellites into space as a potential solution to global connectivity barriers. 

Unlike stationary, existing satellite service  —  which is based on a single fixed position a long way from the Earth  —  LEO satellites are designed to operate together in a unit, covering the planet in a low-flying orbit providing connectivity as they go. 

The goal is a network of floating satellites. Musk says nearly 12,000 satellites will be deployed in his Starlink program, bringing high-quality internet to homes, businesses and rural communities that typically don’t have access to cable, fiber or reliable cellular service.

TV White Space Holds Great Hope for U.S. Rural Connectivity

TV white space technology takes advantage of something rural areas have in abundance compared to cities —unused, unlicensed TV spectrum.  

TV white space signals can travel quite a bit further, as compared to traditional WiFi. TV white space can carry transmissions through walls, trees, and other physical barriers, making them even more potentially useful to farmers. 

In February 2020, the FCC looked at a proposal that would allow telecommunication companies to use more extensive TV white space channels to reach greater distances. It’s a step that generated excitement among many who believe TV white space may be the perfect solution for rural communities and farmers. 

 “Under the proposal, farms, schools and rural internet providers will be able to harness the power of unused TV spectrum to extend WiFi and other unlicensed wireless technologies, helping to narrow the homework gap, fuel precision agriculture and extend connectivity to less populated parts of the country,” said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project, about the FCC proposal. 

Expansion and Improvement of Current Connectivity in Rural Areas

Current technology is improving and more communications providers are investing in new wireless solutions. Midco, a Midwest internet provider, is one of many regional providers expanding their network to farmers by hopscotching off their in-town fiber network with wireless towers. They bring connectivity to farmers in their region 40 miles away from their nearest wirelines.  

In the meantime, current short-range connectivity devices like Bluetooth, RFID (radio frequency identification tags), and low-power, low maintenance networks are improving and getting more efficient. 

Don’t Wait for Future Connectivity to Take Advantage of Digital Farming Solutions

Granular has low-tech answers for even the most ‘unconnected’ farms.

All these future solutions are exciting — and encouraging — for farmers kicking-tires and considering all the promised advantages of the digital and tech revolution underway in agriculture.

But if you’re stuck in the fields with a cell phone with no service or in your farmhouse office taking two hours to download a photo, it still feels like pie-in-the-sky talk. And how do you organize and what do you do with all that data when you do get it? 

After all, most farmers signed up to farm, not as data entry clerks or digital analysts.

Well, while high-speed connectivity is an excellent upgrade, there are plenty of workarounds for capturing data already available. Plus, it’s not just the data farmers capture but how they organize and use it that matters.

That’s precisely where Granular software and data-science tools step in, helping farmers capture and sort the digital information they already have available to them, says Casey Onstot, the US Commercial Leader for Corteva Agriscience’s digital division. Corteva Agriscience is Granular’s parent company. 

Granular is the world’s leading farm management software company, offering a suite of easy-to-usefarm management tools to help farmers absorb digitally captured information and data unique to their operations for better agronomic, operational andfarm business decisions.

Though high-speed connectivity is undoubtedly a plus, Granular has plenty of workarounds for farmers’ data capture in areas that rural broadband innovations have yet to arrive. 

 “We have everything from wireless data transfer, all the way to offline data and a few options in between,” says Onstot. 

In zero-connectivity scenarios, Granular works with farmers to upload data off of connectivity data capturing devices and onto a USB stick. If cell phones don’t have service, that’s no problem. Images and data can be pre-loaded. New information is synced up when you are back home and out of the field.   

Granular philosophy is to “meet farmers where they are at,” Onstot says. Each farm operation has a different level of connectivity ability, data available to them, interest and need for utilizing it. 

Granular Insights, launched in February 2020, does just that. Combining data already collected from 10 plus equipment manufacturers, including the John Deere Operations Center, Granular Insights overlays each farmer’s agronomy choices, in-season field data, satellite imaging and financial insights for a real-time, comparative analysis tool helping farmers make informed decisions. 

One farmer may want to use Granular Agronomy‘s satellite imaging, three-meter images, customizable nutrient calculators and by-field budgeting to dial-in better agronomic decisions. Another farmer may choose to use the Granular Business suite of tools to combine yield variability, revenue forecasting, budget projections, long-term succession planning and other insights to deep-dive into the nitty-gritty of their farm business.

When thinking about connectivity challenges in your farming operation, says Greg Chiocco, senior director of product management at Granular, remember that despite all the hype surrounding “just-in-time” information, much of the data farmers use they don’t need immediately. The most important part is capturing the data and organizing it in a way that practically and easily helps with decision making.

Even when they have the most ingenious agtech devices available, farmers don’t tend to make big agronomic decisions when they’re sitting in the tractor harvesting that year’s crop, Chiocco points out. 

But, the harvest data their combine’s yield monitor captured, cross-analyzed against variable-rate seed prescriptions from the spring, plus field nitrogen monitoring from throughout the season pulled all together for analysis gives farmers the ability to look at their operations on that ‘granular’ level. 

“It’s really about understanding the dollars and cents of what happens on your field to make decisions down the road,” Chiocco says. 

However, even day-to-day, in the height of the season, decisions can be impacted by data already captured and analyzed by Granular’s tools. A new satellite image uploaded overnight showing a developing field hot spot, the most current projected crop prices, plus information already uploaded like field soil types and spring fertilizer applications can help even a farmer with slow connectivity make a information-based, in-season decision that has a profound effect on the end-of-the-year profits. If I apply extra fertilizer mid-season will I lose money in extra expenses or make more with additional yield?

“We’re focused on taking that as-planted data with your yield data and layering your financials on top of that, so you get a good understanding at the sub-level ‘Was this field or even this piece of this field profitable?’” Chiocco says.

The Granular digital tools “pre-populate” data, helping to cut out the need for real-time connectivity. For instance, satellite imagery of a farmer’s field is automatically overlaid onto nitrogen levels, or daily Chicago Board of Trade information can be included in forecast revenue accounting. 

“Farmers are smart, they can put two and two together. It’s just a matter of collecting and putting the data together,” Chiocco says. “They know if they have all this information it adds up to something that helps them with decision making and, ultimately, their bottomline.”

The critical part, whether their upload times are slow or fast, is making sure the data was captured, stored and imported into an adaptable and user-friend program that works for each farmer. It’s okay if a farmer’s network is only 2G and it takes six hours for their combine to upload harvest data overnight, as long as the data is available, organized and easy-to-use when they need to dig into it.

That’s what Granular was designed to do for farmers, whether they have lightning fast internet or not. By using data farmers already have combined with in-season, ongoing insights into an analytical decision-making tool farmers can give up the headache of spreadsheets and data entry while making infinitely better-informed decisions. Chiocco says. 

Better rural connectivity is coming, even for America’s farmers, but there are also digital management tools farmers can adopt to improve their operations right now. Granular has data capture and digital solutions as eclectic, innovative and as diverse as the farmers they serve.

And when rural connectivity does get faster, data management tools only get better!

Curious about how digital ag can impact your operation? Dip your toe in with a free Granular Insights account.

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