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Nex-Tech’s Jimmy Todd Analyzes Private Wireless Networks for Precision Ag

Randy Sukow

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Farmers and ranchers often have limited options when they seek connectivity for precision agriculture applications. If commercial cellular providers do not provide adequate coverage, a private network approach might be necessary. But private networks can be complex and costly. NRTC Board Vice Chairman Jimmy Todd, CEO and general manager of Nex‐Tech, Lenora, KS, provided a brief analysis of the current state of private networks for agriculture during a recent online meeting of the FCC’s Precision Ag Connectivity Task Force.

Under ideal circumstances, a farmer could work with a local fixed wireless or mobile carrier, “where someone is providing wireless service in the area and it allows you to use their tools and spectrum,” said Todd. But in other situations, farmers are forced to use “what I call the bubblegum-and-bailing-wire approach, where it takes [currently available] connectivity but it is not going to provide the security and things you need for a long-term solution for a private network,” he said.

Jimmy Todd, CEO and general manager of Nex‐Tech, and vice chairman of the NRTC Board is pictured lower left.

The two greatest challenges to private wireless networks for farms are spectrum availability and cost, he said. It can be difficult to get access to licensed spectrum for the full array of remote-control applications, sensors for monitoring crops and livestock, and other needed functions. Licensed options provide “clean spectrum generally.” Unlicensed solutions also have potential problems. It is comparatively easy to deploy an unlicensed network on a farm or ranch near a population center. But remote areas far from internet access points could be costly.

Farmers could potentially meet spectrum availability and cost challenges by working together. “I think maybe you look at a cooperative model, where a group of farmers that might be using an ag co-op, … figure out a way to share some of the equipment and the spectrum and labor necessary,” Todd said.

NRTC offers its electric members a number of wireless communications options to connect AMI, SCADA and smart grid networks of many types. It has examined the feasibility of cooperatives working with government and other businesses to share the advantages of private networks.

Other cost issues include purchasing equipment and maintaining a wireless network. “Most small and mid-sized farming operations don’t have an IT person on staff, so [farmers] might be outsourcing that,” Todd said. He suggested that the U.S. Department of Agriculture might be able to help finance some of those future costs.

The FCC currently is working on new broadband availability maps to track exactly where service is or is not existing. However, Todd cautioned that the maps might not be useful for farmers planning private networks.

“Their requirement is to get to the premises, whether it is a business or a residence. It is not to get to the last acre, that pasture, that field, and that is why the maps will not paint the full picture when it comes to precision ag accessibility,” he said.

The Commission has posted a recording of the task force meeting on its website and YouTube. Todd’s presentation begins at the 1:12:00 mark.

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