5G and the future of farming

The challenges of moving a new technology into rural areas could create new partnerships and opportunities

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Users of the Samsung Galaxy S20 phone will be the first to have access to 5G technology in Canada.

Rural residents and farmers will have to wait much longer – if the technology ever arrives.

Rogers announced in early March that it is rolling out 5G networks in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal, with 20 more markets to come by the end of 2020. Users of the Samsung Galaxy S20 – the first truly 5G enabled phone available – can now use them in 5G mode in those markets where the service is available.

Related Articles

Why it matters: The increased speed of 5G can help drive better results from connected devices – including sensors, autonomous vehicles and systems making automated decisions. Those are all technologies on farms, or close to arriving in agriculture.

Data rates for 5G are about 100 times faster than 4G, or LTE as it is known in Canada, up to a theoretical 10 gigabits per second. That’s like being able to download a movie in a second. The increased speed is expected to drive unimagined innovations, especially among connected devices.

The technology, however, is much different than the cell service we’ve come to know, flitting through the air from a distant tower. 5G antennas need to be much closer to each other to maintain a stable signal – a maximum of a half a kilometer. Signals for 5G are at higher frequencies than are now used, which make them less able to penetrate walls and other obstacles. Think of it like a net of transmitters instead of a beacon. The speed and capacity of 5G networks could render house and business-based WIFI systems obsolete, but that would rely on widespread distribution of the technology, which isn’t likely, especially in rural areas.

The need to build expensive nets of transmitters might make sense on a waterfront, or a downtown area, or to link a cluster of high tech businesses, but Prof. Helen Hambly of the University of Guelph says it will be a challenge to make 5G investment make sense in rural areas.

“It’s not going to evolve in that same way in a rural context. There are too many big spaces, too many trees, too many things to deal with,” she said.

What is 5G?

5G is the next step up in wireless speed, running 100 times faster than the current 4G or LTE technology used in wireless devices like cell phones.

Positives:

  • High speed could connect devices at rates that would allow for greater immediate transmission of large amounts of data or images.
  • Devices,such as in a barn or greenhouse could talk to each other and other systems anywhere in the world.
  • Autonomous vehicles would have more reliable, high speed connections.
  • More capacity for telecommuting anywhere.

Challenges:

  • A need for antennas to be close to each other, about half a kilometre.
  • Obstructions are a challenge,including trees and buildings.
  • Unknown cost.
  • Politics,including the fact that Chinese- owned Huawei is a leader in 5G technology.
  • The lack of a fibre optic internet backbone in most of rural Ontario.

High speed fibre still needed

The first limitation is the lack of high speed fibre backbone in many rural areas.

5G “is not just next generation of wireless. Where is all this data throughput going to go to? Some need fibre capability,” she says.

Huge amounts of data will be able to be connected at high speed in a net of 5G antennas, but it will need the high speed of fibre in order to move it to somewhere else in the world quickly. High speed fibre service is not common in rural Ontario – although fibre networks are being built in pockets across the province. Most, however, only provide service to rural roads on the routes between towns and villages.

“It’s not going to evolve in that same way in a rural context. There are too many big spaces, too many trees, too many things to deal with… Very distinct farms or agriculture units could find 5G cost effective and of high benefit.” – Helen Hambly, University of Guelph
photo: Supplied

In the U.S. cellular provider Verizon’s CEO Hans Vestberg said that, “The company will need to build 1,400 route miles of fiber each month over the next couple of years to build out the network that it needs for nationwide 5G.”

Farms who have high speed fibre internet are most likely customers of local telecommunications co-operatives like Quadro, based in Kirkton, Ont. Quadro continues to take fibre to where there’s a business case in its surrounding area.

Companies like Quadro could provide the fibre backbone if telecommunications companies decide to bring 5G networks into rural areas.

“We’re waiting to see what the major carriers do,” says Matt Green, network operations manager with Quadro. “There’s big hype for it. It is going to change the world no doubt, but it’s going to take more time than anticipated.”

Quadro provides mobile phone service through the Bell network, but Green says they don’t hear anything about what Bell is up to any faster than the public.

Hambly has done research on rural area connectivity, including writing reports as part of School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, Ontario Agricultural College, University of Guelph in partnership with SouthWestern Integrated Fibre Technology Inc. (SWIFT).

SWIFT is an organization put together by rural Ontario counties as a conduit for planning and execution of high speed internet rollout. The organization received another $8 million in funding on March 9 from the federal and provincial governments as part of continuing funding announcements towards high speed internet.

However, many of those investments will be in point to point wireless – from a dish on a tower or a silo connecting to other dishes on individual rural properties.

Wireless is beneficial, but it’s not enough to power the next generation of technologies, says Hambly, which is why SWIFT has pushed for fibre networking to rural areas and farms whenever possible.

What will it look like on the farm?

The poster child farm for 5G is a vineyard. Hambly says that’s the example that’s commonly used. It has high value crops, has a tight geographic footprint and vineyards are already looking at automation.

A vineyard with autonomous machines to mow grass, spray, monitor vines and fruit, along with automatically engaging environmental controls like wind machines for frost mitigation will have a need for a lot of devices to be connected.

That data can be shared between devices or fed into decision making systems involving the grower – or the wine maker.

The poster child farm for 5G is a vineyard. It has high value crops, has a tight geographic footprint and vineyards are already looking at automation.
photo: Getty Images

Other likely candidates for 5G connection include barns and greenhouses – where limited space and high value operations make data gathering profitable and desirable. The systems that manage individual cow data in dairy barns will be well served by the increasing speed of 5G technology.

“Very distinct farms or agriculture units could find 5G cost effective and of high benefit,” says Hambly.

However, for “crop farming and cropping, the relationship with 5G is not so obvious just yet,” although she says that potato farming could make sense related to 5G at some point.

Crop fields are large and farmers travel kilometres between farms, making a focused 5G application unlikely.

Hambly says there are trials being proposed at the University of Guelph related to sensors for soil and moisture and 5G, to see what the value could be in row crops.

The expense and infrastructure needed for 5G systems could mean a change in relationship among farmers, their equipment companies and telecommunications suppliers.

Could John Deere be the one to sell the 5G system, as it does now with GPS technology? Could a farmer partner with Rogers in a system that brings value to both? Or could a local telecommunications co-operative like Quadro be a business partner with a farmer?

Hambly says she has written a paper for Verizon in the U.S. that looks at these questions.

“Are there lines of business for companies like Cisco (the company that provides wireless networking equipment and many of the routers in homes and businesses) in agriculture? They are thinking that way.”

Indeed Cisco recently purchased Prospera, a company building a digital platform for farms.

Agriculture included in some 5G projects

There are organizations looking at agriculture along with other projects around next generation data transfer. They include the Centre of Excellence in Next Generation Networks known as CENGN.

The organization has members across the telecommunications world, including Bell, Cisco, Huawai, Telus and numerous other technology providers, governments, universities and colleges.

One of the case studies promoted on the CENGN website is that of Ukko Agro, a Toronto-based startup that has created a cloud-based platform that helps farmers control pest outbreaks, while decreasing pesticide usage. Ukko completed a CENGN-funded project that found that pesticide use in potatoes could be reduced by 25 per cent, saving about $40 per acre.

Thinking about 6G

Those setting up 5G infrastructure also have to keep the next level of technology in mind, called 6G for now.

It’s even faster, expected to arrive around 2030, and will allow the seamless integration of machine decision making.

Hambly says the other factor whose impact is unknown is the rapid move to put thousands of satellites into low-earth orbit, which could provide another high speed option for rural remote areas. How could technologies work together – 5G, fibre and satellites – to provide the service a farmer need.

“The good thing is that some farmers are taking advantage of fibre,” says Green. “We see it all the time, a lot of analytics being used. It would be nice to extend that out into their entire property (with technologies like 5G) and take advantage of all those capabilities.”

About the author

Editor

John Greig

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

Comments

explore

Stories from our other publications