Recent News // Connecting fields will help farmers fully utilize latest ag technology

Thursday, June 23, 2016

By Bill Tiedje, Iowa Farmer Today

 As precision ag increasingly becomes a part of the technology toolbox on farms, wireless connectivity and broadband access remain a limiting factor in many parts of rural Iowa.

Nick Tindall, senior director of government and industry relations with the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, said one of his main goals on Capitol Hill is to change the conversation regarding rural broadband.

Advances in the use of data on the farm have as much potential to increase productivity in agriculture in the next 100 years as mechanization did in the past 100 years, Tindall said.

After accomplishing the initial phase of providing broadband access to institutions such as schools and hospitals, Tindall said it’s time to start thinking of the next phase of rural connectivity in terms of rural wireless.

To benefit from the productivity gains of modern technology, farmers need to be able to move their information more freely, he said.

Many farmers without wireless broadband access need to move data from their tractors or combines with a thumb drive or other type of physical data storage to get it to their agronomist or local equipment dealership for analysis, Tindall explained.

But if there is wireless broadband reception in the field, wireless modems (the type that send and receive cell-phone data and come standard on many new tractors) can transfer data wirelessly to other business partners, home computers or even allow communication between tractors.

At this point, most of this data collected in the field is used to tell farmers things like how many hours they are putting on their machines or provide telemetric data for a variety of purposes, Tindall said.

This connectivity may allow equipment technicians to work on a tractor’s computer remotely, potentially saving several hours in driving to the dealership for a repair.

“Right now, a lot of producers are just scratching the surface of using their data most effectively,” Tindall said.

But more new technology is on the way.

Tindall said advanced technologies, such as mobile radar which detects the health of individual plants or self-driving autonomous vehicles, exist now and will be used more as the technology becomes more scalable.

He said it is important to invest in the necessary infrastructure now, so it’s ready when new technologies arrive in the next 15 years.

He hopes providers will learn to look at connectivity in terms of numbers of modems, instead of focusing solely on numbers of people.

Then when they look at a blank area on the map, they may realize there is a corn or soybean field there that needs a signal, he said.

In Iowa, Connect Iowa Community Advisor David Daack said nearly 80 percent of the state’s residents have access to fixed broadband at speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) downloads and 3 Mbps uploads, which the Federal Communications Commission considers to be the benchmark for fixed broadband.

However, those 80 percent live in about 20 percent of the geographic area of the state, Daack said.

That leaves many rural portions of the state still in the dark in terms of access to fixed broadband, Daack explained.

Progress has been made, thanks to the federal Connect America Fund grant program.

Providers CenturyLink, Windstream, Consolidated and Frontier have opted in for federal subsidies to expand rural broadband to underserved areas in Iowa.

Even at lower speeds, broadband access can make a big difference for farmers who don’t have it, Daack said.

“If there is zero there, 6 or 10 Mbps is going to be a big jump for the farmer there that wants to use it with his operation,” Daack said.