Broadband internet: the new infrastructure frontier?

While high-speed wireless internet is becoming a reality for most, many European, North American and Australian farmers still grapple with sluggish connections to the world wide web. Telecommunication companies, it seems, consider that densely populated areas as well as nodal transport infrastructure provide for a better business-case than rural ones when it comes to rolling out fast internet access. As a result, although cellular telecommunication networks are relatively easy set up in comparison to physical ones, such as fiber optics, reliable broadband internet access remains lacking in many peripheral regions, making this one of the biggest hurdles in the way of the smart farming revolution.

Smart farming has undergone a conceptual transition in recent years, back from the days where satellite field imagery provided the backbone of data-enabled farming techniques. The real game changer now comes from in-situ wireless sensors disseminated all across farm holdings, providing information ranging from cattle health to soil moisture levels or nitrogen uptake in crops. Drones allow farmers to access real-time information on crop nutrient status or herd locations. In addition, a myriad of low-capital intensive precision farming solutions run on smartphone applications: self-learning algorithms can connect a picture of a weed with a database of invasive species, while visual recognition aps provide recommendations on fertilization based on leaf colors.

But all these sensors and smartphone-enabled technologies require ubiquitous wireless internet connectivity to work properly, the lack of which in rural areas (the so-called “white areas”) hamper the full deployment of precision farming. In countries with low population density such as the USA and Australia, gaps in telecommunication infrastructure create an uneven playing field between farm holdings: while most farmers have access to some form of wireless internet access, research shows only 55% of Americans living in rural areas have access to internet speeds that correspond to the definition of broadband (i.e. a download speed of at least 25 megabits/second), compared to 94% in urban areas. The absence of ubiquitous broadband wireless connectivity for uploading and downloading data represents a serious problem for ICT-enabled business models in agriculture.

“Nudging” infrastructure investments in rural Europe: what can the EU do?

In Europe, several funding instruments are earmarked to bridge the connectivity gap between “white areas” and more favored locations: local authorities can use the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) as well as Rural Development Programme grants to fund telecommunication infrastructure projects in rural areas without infringing on state-aid rules. In addition, loans, guarantees and equity from the Juncker Plan are increasingly dedicated towards high-risk broadband internet projects in peripheral zones.

To learn more, click here for a close-up on how mainland Australian farmers are coping with slow connectivity.

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