Connecting agriculture: LoRa, NB-IoT, LTE, and 5G – and a ‘network of networks’ for smart farming (part 2)
Low-power wide-area (LPWA) networking technologies like LoRaWAN and NB-IoT, among others, are helping farmers to connect their work to the internet, as we have heard. This connectivity provides a platform for them to start to introduce new automation and intelligence into their operations.
But LPWA networks won’t cut it, say some, if farming is to make use of the very latest analytics and automation tools. Again, connectivity is the biggest barrier, according to another provider, in the form of US firm Viasat, providing satellite broadband for military, government, and commercial markets.
“That we need better infrastructure to enable farmers to take advantage of the latest technologies is clear,” comments Cody Catalena, vice president and general manager for global business solutions at Viasat. “In this day and age, poor connectivity cannot be used as an excuse.”
He puts focus on the UK countryside – the wrong side in a “divided nation of connectivity haves and have-nots”.
An average farm in the UK spans 210 acres, says Catalena, making the kind of coverage that will support higher-end video and drone applications, as well as straight monitoring and tracking, “impossible” from a single mast. “A situation where some adopt smart farming and others linger in a digital divide is out of the question. But providing this connection is a challenge.”
It will take a ‘network of networks’, he reckons. “Relying on one or two technologies to deliver connectivity everywhere will not work. Instead, we need a holistic mix of communication technologies like 5G, fibre, satellite and more, to provide the coverage and capacity smart farming needs.”
It is what Cisco is trying with 5G in Somerset as part of the UK’s RuralFirst programme, one of half a dozen 5G testbeds established in the UK to put right some of the wrongs of previous generations of radio technology. The idea is to connect hard-to-reach areas, and stimulate new business models along the way.
The UK countryside is home to almost one in five people (17 per cent), plus passing tourists, traders, and travellers. Half of the UK (57 per cent) is farmland, a third (35 per cent) is ‘natural’ land, and just a tenth is classified as either ‘green urban’ or ‘built on’ (8.4 per cent).
“The reality is 4G has hardly been deployed in rural areas in the UK because the business case is not there,” says Nick Chrissos, director of innovation for Cisco in Europe.
“The operators will present 5G as better for bandwidth, services, and efficiency. But the business case won’t change. It is still based on the number of people and the consumption of data. The way we see 5G – and the way the UK government sees 5G – is as an ubiquitous network that connects much more than just people and data. The connectivity of people, and the data they generate, is no longer the objective – it’s not the business case, but the by-product of why we put 5G there.”
But the terminology is confused. For Cisco, as well as the UK government, ‘5G’ is a catch-all for a range of connectivity systems, covering everything from LPWA technologies like LoRaWAN and NB-IoT, through to higher-grade 5G variants. “Yes, there will be millimetre wave new-radio systems. But LoRa and NB-IoT and Wi-Fi will be a part of a combined 5G infrastructure. This is what 5G brings – that ability to accommodate different systems,” says Chrissos.
Different sectors have different viewpoints. Mobile operators are marketing 5G as a go-faster version of LTE to drive sales. The public sector wants it to spur the economy. Neither touch upon its more futuristic aspects, covering massive machine-type (mMTC) and ultra low-latency (URLLC) communications.
“What the network operators call 5G, and what cities and farmers call 5G are different things. For operators, 5G is an extension of 4G, with new opportunities to make money. For everyone else, it is this ubiquitous connectivity, where everything connects.”
Cisco is collaborating with the public and private sector agencies to calculate the value this next-generation connectivity, layered with applications and intelligence, can deliver to farmers. The experiment seeks to manage animal health through IoT monitoring of rumination, fertility, and eating patterns in cows. “We’re putting a collar on every cow. We will have 2,000 collars and 2,000 cows. That’s 2,000 new endpoints for the mobile network – in the middle of nowhere.”
But is it enough for mobile opetators to put a mast in? Are connected cows, however numerous, going to generate the kind of subscriptions that attach to smartphones? The data rates are minimal, surely? This thinking is wrong-headed, too, it seems. If anything, the value gained from connecting cows is simpler to calculate.
“There are lots of ‘soft’ benefits associated with smartphone connectivity – like the ‘experience’,” explains Chrissos. “With cows, the return is much easier – it comes down to how much money the farmer makes from them. We are not there ye, but we will know that if you invest £5 to connect a cow, say, then you will get £15 back, and we will know why. We will show the impact of this technology. It’s going to be translated into a much harder ROI than we have ever achieved with people.”
This article is continued here. This is a serialised excerpt from a new editorial report from Enterprise IoT Insights, called Connecting Agriculture – the promise of smart farming and the challenge of connectivity’, which looks at development of IoT technologies in the farming and agricultural sectors. The full report, free to download, can be found here.