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Connectivity for Precision Ag May Require New Federal Approaches

Randy Sukow

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Smart Agriculture Illustration

The FCC’s Precision Agriculture Connectivity Task Force last week approved a long list of preliminary recommendations to the Commission suggesting policy changes to promote broadband connectivity to unserved agricultural lands. The recommendations developed by the task force’s Accelerating Broadband Deployment on Unserved Agricultural Lands Working Group call for the FCC and other agencies to rethink spectrum auctions and other policies that set population coverage as a goal over geography. Precision ag requires connectivity to every acre of every farm and ranch.

“Now all these tractors and combines are effectively mini-data centers,” said Commissioner Brendan Carr at the opening of the meeting. “When you look at all of the high-res imagery technology we have and other ways we have of collecting data, there is about 18 [gigabytes] of data that you could pull off of an individual plant. That means the average cornfield holds over 28 times as much data as the Library of Congress.”

The technology to collect and analyze that data exists. Connectivity to agricultural lands, however, often does not exist.

In total, the task force approved 15 recommendations falling into various themes. Working Group Vice Chairwoman Heather Hampton+Knodle, a farmer who with her husband raises corn, soybeans and cattle in rural Illinois, read the recommendations at the meeting. A call for untraditional geographically based policies rather than population-based was first on the list.

“This change would better insure coverage in more sparsely populated areas, such as agricultural lands. We are considering a dual approach that still requires population targets in urban areas while requiring geographic coverage in rural areas,” Hampton+Knodle said.

The task force also adopted recommendations to change the aims of technical standards for spectrum auctions to match the needs of precision agriculture more closely. Standards should cover “all elements of the network, define multiple precision agriculture performance targets comprising speed and quality metrics such as latency, jitter and packet loss, based on the defined broadband needs of actual agricultural use cases,” she said.

Related to the technical standards question was the issue of upstream speeds. Currently federal broadband baseline speeds are 10 Mbps downstream/1 Mbps upstream for the Agricultural Department and 25/3 Mbps for the FCC. Some task force members noted that certain precision agriculture use cases would benefit from symmetrical or “near-symmetrical” services.

Working group member David Goldman, director of Satellite Policy for SpaceX, however, pointed out that many more use cases will rely on satellite or fixed/mobile wireless connections, which are historically asymmetrical. “Even if you were to connect fiber to the farms, that would be your backhaul. At some point you will have to get to a wireless solution to get to every corner. The FCC does not allocate spectrum symmetrically because demand has not been there,” Goldman said.

Some of the recommendations deal with differing rules and requirements among the various federal agencies which often lead to confusion for those attempting to deploy farm technologies. Beyond the FCC and Agriculture Department, rules from agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management, National Forrest Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs sometimes lead to deployment delays.

The recommendations also call for attention to cybersecurity. “Farm and farm record data should be recognized at the levels of any other business entity. It should be recognized that farm data and records are matter of national security,” Hampton+Knodle said. “Such data should be considered highly sensitive and malicious acts should be treated accordingly.”

“When you get this kind of connectivity you could have somebody hack into the cameras in the barn to see what is going on and plan some type of terrorist activity,” said Michael Adelaine, VP for Technology and Security at South Dakota State University. Adeline and others said that under various scenarios, bad actors potentially could taint the food supply or affect agricultural prices.

The full task force plans to meet next on July 8. Later in the year, it is planning to submit final recommendations to the FCC. The group is still considering whether it will submit one report, or four separate sets of recommendations from the working groups.

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