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January 3rd, 2017 << back >>


Network Coverage: A Prerequisite for Digital Farming

Drones flying above grain fields, smartphone notifications from the cowshed and satellite-guided tractors: with Internet and data analytics, farmers benefit from digital technologies in their daily farming practice. But not everyone is able to get started. One obstacle on the way towards Digital Farming is the necessary network coverage.

A new survey published by the German digital association Bitkom shows that 46 percent of farmers do not use digital applications at their farm. The reasons for this are diverse: farmers specify security concerns and a lack of digital skills as well as high asset and operating costs as reasons. But in fact there is another particularly fundamental reason – 39 percent of the farmers in question don’t have sufficient access to the Internet.

Digitization is data-driven

Sensors that transmit the moisture levels of soil, weather stations that measure sun intensity, combine harvesters that tell you exactly in which square meter of the field they are: in the future, it will be possible to capture almost every step of the agricultural working process by means of digitization, so that even if only small data packages are transmitted one at a time, the result will be a large volume of data. In order to guarantee seamless data documentation, it is essential that data can be made available to the user in real time. To sum up: transmitting different kinds of data from one point to another is key for digitization.

It is all about transferring analog data into digital data. For this purpose, the information has to be converted into the binary system first, and then – as a pure numerical sequence – it can be relayed electronically to wherever the user wants. Wherever the user wants? If it only was that easy: in many rural areas, network coverage is not as good as it should be. And because data is the fuel of digitization, not being able to send or receive it means you can’t digitize your farm. As was discovered in a recent survey by John Deere, a manufacturer of agricultural machinery, farm data in the U.S. only has a 70 percent transmission success rate, which will likely even drop to 50 percent if the current situation persists.

No network, no digitization

For undisturbed use of large data volumes, network access with sufficient bandwidth and data volume has to be provided. As previously mentioned, this isn’t the case in many rural areas, which is where farms are usually located. “Connectivity, particularly in rural areas, is one key enabler of achieving the goals of Digital Farming,” points out Andree-Georg Girg, Managing Director Digital Farming at Bayer. “That’s why we need a smart strategy to attract and involve telecommunication companies in supporting us, in order to achieve connectivity coverage.”

But for what purpose would farmers mainly use network infrastructure? If we take, for example, Bayer’s Digital Farming Tool, the underlying network has to be able to store data such as field-specific weather information. It must be able to reconfigure this data as needed, for example, to analyze sensor data obtained in fields or weather stations in order to estimate pest infestation risks. And it needs the skills to delegate and distribute specific data to the right recipient, such as telling the spraying device where crop protection is needed.

Building an infrastructure that is capable of this is hard work and requires considerable funds. That’s the reason why we must make a concerted effort to upgrade and make accessible high speed broadband in urban and definitely also in rural areas. Infrastructure for the agricultural sector has to integrate primarily machine and working material data (for example, information about crop protection, fertilizer, feeding and seeds). Developers must not forget to get the users – the farmers – on board. And because farmers know their needs most thoroughly, they can and should play a big role in the process of developing and building such an innovative infrastructure. Andree-Georg Girg on the benefits of partnering along the digital value chain: “We are partnering with experts and currently running product tests with farmers in ten markets to deliver the best possible digital solutions.”

We have established that farmers need a network to be able to use Digital Farming solutions, but it has to have certain specifications, so not just any network will do. Read the second part of the article next week, in which we explain the importance of broadband networks, where they available and what kind of measures are being taken to expand them.