Whether it is getting real-time data from in-field disease sensors, combine telematics or accessing web tools, the one essential ingredient for today’s high-tech farmer is having decent access to the digital superhighway.
Farmers tend to operate in more remote areas and are therefore often out of reach of the limited fibre optic network. Even mobile signals can be non-existent and the old-fashioned copper phone wire is slow.
See also: Internet speed hinders farm technology use in Canada
It leaves growers cut off, unable to use internet tools or precision farming software.
That’s why some farmers have gone to great lengths – paying for premium satellite services, building their own towers or laying cables over many km to ensure they are not being left behind in the digital revolution.
Australian farmers have to fill the gaps in patchy connectivity
By Emma Leonard
Providing reliable and cost-effective mobile phone and data coverage is a challenge in a vast and often sparsely populated country such as Australia.
While the telecommunication companies are making progress, farmers and rural communities are working to fill the gaps and ensure network access.
A recent survey of 1,000 producers across 12 agricultural sectors identified that for three-quarters of respondents, internet connectivity is moderately to extremely important to their business. It is extremely important to 55%.
There are two main options for internet connectivity in Australia – via the mobile network as 3G or 4G or via the National Broadband Network (NBN).
Currently, there are three mobile network operators, all of which are commercial companies - Telstra, Optus and Vodafone. A further 60 or so companies provide mobile plans run on these networks.
In contrast, NBN Co Limited is a government-owned corporation tasked to design, build and operate Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN) as a monopoly wholesale provider.
The survey, produced by government research body CSiro established that 55% of respondents relied on the mobile phone network for internet, yet 43% had patchy or no mobile reception across their property. That makes internet connectivity for machine telematics or data sharing very restricted.
Some 6% of respondents had no internet connection, although this could be through choice or lack of service, and a further 44% subscribed to one of the three NBN options.
These are fibre to node (1% - service mainly available in urban areas), fixed wireless (16%) or one of the two satellite options – Sky Muster (12%) or NBN interim satellite (15%).
Not only is NBN a monopoly, it also dictates which level of broadband connection it can provide to a property and only offers one connection per property.
For example, my farm-based office is 15km (9 miles) from our nearest town and 100km (62 miles) from the state capital, Adelaide. Telstra’s voice service is patchy even with an additional antenna on a building or the car. Text is not too bad.
On Optus, I can usually make and receive calls from my office, although I occasionally need to resort to having a meeting sitting on top of the water tank.
Mobile data can be patchy, but the other day I took part in an international webinar that linked participants from North and South America, Europe and Australasia on my phone.
For NBN, my only option is satellite, which generally works well, unless the power goes out and there is no connection.
I am grateful to have any broadband, as the NBN roll-out is only due for completion in 2020. That is possibly another reason why 6% of survey respondents did not have any form of internet connection.
The downside of satellite is that it is expensive, slow, plans are capped and it has certain programming requirements that are unknown to designers of some cloud based services, so these fail to work.
Oh, and if I do go over my plan then it is shaped until the next billing period starts – that means I have data, but speed is reduced to usually less than 100kbps. Add latency and that means internet connectivity is rubbish.
What can Australian farmers do to improve their connectivity?
- DIY options The challenges of patchy mobile connectivity and limitations of satellite broadband are making farmers take matters in to their own hands and invest in on-farm telecommunications infrastructure.
- Mobile booster Legislation controls the use of mobile phone boosters, limiting what can be used.
Cel-fi for static locations and Cel-fi Go for use in vehicles has universal acceptance from the three major networks. Boosters are not cheap, but are a one-off capital purchase with no monthly fees.
- Signal repeaters Several companies offer Australian farms high-speed internet right across the property, providing they are within about 50km (30 miles) of a town with NBN connectivity or an area with fast, reliable mobile connectivity. A gateway to/from the reliable full-strength source beams signal to repeaters that bounce it to and across a property.
Wi-fi towers improve network on Western Australia farm
Darrin Lee installed a network of soil moisture probes and weather stations to monitor rainfall, soil moisture, temperature and humidity across his 6,500ha (16,000-acre) grain and sheep property.
To access the data in real time he needed improved network coverage across the farm, so Darrin installed three 20m (66ft) wi-fi towers to enable voice and data connectivity in every paddock.
Climate and soil data collected from the nine weather stations is linked to plant development rates and projected available water and used to make management decisions.
The network is also collects real-time telematics data from harvesters, seeders, sprayers and trucks, plus agronomic information such as spray rates, droplet size and crop yield.
Other sensors provide surveillance video and monitor assets such as the 110t field bin for harvest management and stock water points for remote operation, including turning pumps on and off.
It is a significant investment, but for this farmer connectivity is fundamental to his business and he believes in 10 years’ time, digital agriculture will just be called farming.
And while some are concerned about the job losses from automation and robotics, others are finding improving connectivity is helping to retain staff. One of the many ironies that seems to accompany technology.
UK farmer's wife helps get community connected
By Louise Impey
The UK is much more densely populated than either Canada or Australia, but its growers still face the challenge of poor or non-existent broadband connections.
The North West is particularly affected and this has prompted a digital revolution in the Lune Valley in Lancashire over the past eight years.
Farmer’s wife Chris Conder took matters into her own hands to provide a neighbouring farm with broadband.
Known locally as the farmer who built her own broadband, Chris came up with a DIY solution to a neighbour’s internet connectivity problems caused by trees getting in the way of a wireless mast.
Unimpressed with dial-up and unreliable satellites, and with no other alternatives available in the area, she dug a trench with a tractor and managed to lay down 1km (0.6 miles) of fibre optic cable to the farm.
Once the cable was lit, the two farms were connected, allowing the next door property to make use of the internet.
This proved to Chris that the local community could do it – provided they were prepared to put in the hard work and do some of the installation themselves.
That was the start of B4RN, which was founded in 2011, and has become an internet service provider offering much faster broadband speeds than the average UK connection.
A community initiative, it originally set out to bring self-installation fibre broadband to eight parishes, with funding provided by locals through a co-operative model.
The bulk of the work was done by volunteers, with local farmers and landowners giving access to their land and relevant equipment.
Today, it has laid more than 3,200km (2,000 miles) of cable and connected 40 parishes with internet speeds as high as 1Gbps.
Each household pays £40/month with a $200 connection fee. Larger businesses pay more, while the service is free for churches and provided to village schools at a discount.
Chris points out that the B4RN model has been successful because it operates in rural areas, where there is no need to get permission to dig through roads or incur the costs that landowners can charge for cabling to take place.
“Local farmers have been supportive, which means the whole community has benefited,” she says. “No one is making a profit at their expense and we have all helped each other.”
Canadian farmers pay 'an arm and leg' to access high-speed connections
By Matt McKintosh
Access to reliable and affordable internet continues to be a significant challenge for farmers across Canada – and not just in remote, isolated areas.
Thanks to Canada’s sheer size and diversity of landscape, farmers have had to employ different strategies to find solutions to their unique situation. Unfortunately, those solutions all come with a hefty price tag.
Alicia Huston and her husband are grain and hog farmers from south-western Ontario. Despite living in one of the most developed region in Canada, consistent high-speed internet is a rare privilege.
Their connection – when it works – is incredibly sporadic, with download and upload speeds frequently dropping to what was once considered dial-up levels. This problem is particularly acute at certain times of the day when most people and schoolchildren are online, and when it is very cloudy.
“We just turn it off during storms,” says Mrs Huston. “We’ve switched providers recently, but things are the same as they were when we moved in nine years ago. You have to pay an arm and a leg to get anything worthwhile.”
One solution in her case lies in a quick trip to the local library or a relative’s house in town.
For Kim Jo Bliss – a beef farmer from the sparsely populated north shore of Lake Superior – trips to town are not practical, and thanks to the rugged northern Ontario landscape, internet signals are even more geographically varied.
This has posed a major issue when Mr Bliss and other local farmers try to sell livestock, forcing them to continue relying on more local sales.
“We try to sell cattle online through our sales barn, but the connection is so bad that people end up leaving because we can’t update the site efficiently. They go to buy or search and nothing happens,” says Mr Bliss.
“We’ve certainly lost business because of poor internet connections, and so most sales are still made in person locally.”
Internet aside, he says even cell-phone service can be problematic, thanks to the strength of nearby American cell-towers.
“You need a phone though. We still pay for internet, which costs us about $76/month,” she says.
Some farmers live in regions so remote, however, that cell phones are not an option.
“Satellite internet is the only option out here,” says Cordy Cox, a cattle rancher from central British Columbia. “It works pretty well most of the time, and it keeps our workers happy, but it’s really expensive – about $104/month.”