Connectivity and WiFi access is something urban and suburbanites often take for granted. Despite the number of connected devices and data being transferred in rural agricultural communities — soil moisture meters, telemetry on center pivots and cloud-based software, to name a few — many rural residents are limited by a lack of connectivity and a slow bandwidth.
That’s something Roric Paulman, who farms near Sutherland in southwest Nebraska, has been working to change. In September, Paulman, along with Paige Wireless, hosted a “Connected Acres” virtual event, demonstrating the bandwidth from the statewide Nebraska long-range, wide-area network (LoRaWAN) on his own farm. The network, which was launched in 2019, has since expanded into parts of Kansas and Colorado.
The virtual event focused on the need for this connectivity on farms like Paulman’s, who demonstrated the WiFi connection from his Kubota UTV. “That vehicle was broadcasting WiFi. It wasn’t just receiving, but broadcasting. It’s similar to WiFi in the car through OnStar,” he says.
Why it matters
That may not seem like a big deal for those used to having WiFi access, but for Paulman and other growers in different parts of the U.S., two-way data transfers often aren’t possible. In addition, most devices — like soil moisture probes, flowmeters and rain gauges — require their own separate gateway and an annual telemetry fee.
“Every time you think you have another tool in the toolbox, you wouldn’t get adoption because you’re going to spend another $2 an acre for a Verizon card,” Paulman says. “The fee for nearly every device is $250 annually for the growing season. Each one of those builds on that overhead cost of telemetry fees. What really brought it all to light was over the 100 or some devices we were spending over $20,000 on gateway fees annually.”
Without a good connection, Paulman was limited to receiving data from devices like soil moisture sensors and flowmeters — and not in real-time. For example, with 36 wells on his farm, some equipped with flowmeters, he was able to receive updates every two hours, but couldn’t query those flowmeters (have a two-way exchange) in real-time before the fiberoptic network.
“It’s a boatload of water, and you can’t query it,” he says.
“There should be one soil moisture probe permanently buried in every field. Right now, you still have to have a gateway for every probe,” he says. “If I have 50 soil moisture probes, it’s like having 50 cell phones and 50 SIM cards. They’re only one-way; you can’t query them. I can’t call that cellphone on that probe, that SIM card. It’s just programmed to send data up.”
It comes down to a reasonable turnaround time in making actionable decisions, he says. Paulman recalls an example when watching rain gauges that report every two hours.
“I was shutting pivots off, but the data was showing zero in the rain gauge. It last reported at 8 a.m.; the rain event was 8:05. You’ve got an hour and 55 minutes of not knowing what’s going on. In that time, it rained 40/100 of an inch,” he says.
Five years ago, Paulman installed a fiberoptic network on his farm through Great Plains Communication of Nebraska. Before this, Paulman says his connection was 5x1 on the farm — or 5 megabits per second download speed, and 1 megabit per second upload speed.
“Before that, we had dial-up, so to speak, and internet was terrible,” he says. “With all the data points and sensors we have, how do we get data in time to make a real-time decision? I approached Great Plains; I paid for fiber; and for five years I paid an elevated rate because I was the only one getting service. I was 20x20 from day one. Whenever I hosted a field day, they bumped it up to 100x100.”
To establish the statewide LoRaWAN network, Julie Bushell, president at Paige Wireless, says the company used radios throughout the state, some mounted on cell towers and others on vertical infrastructure like water towers or farm structures. These radios are handling small packets of data from in-field sensors, telemetry units and other devices, and aren’t used for streaming videos.
“Over 90% of our network is deployed on large cell towers across the state and through additional partnerships through public power districts throughout Nebraska. We also leverage power poles or public power towers, as well as grain elevators in some instances,” she says. “We started in March 2019, and by the end of 2020, we will be very close to finishing up the entire state. It really does come down to those unique partnerships.”
In July 2019, Paige Wireless began deploying high-band, mission-critical radios for specific applications like autonomy, autonomous vehicles and broadband over cropland, using the same sites used for LoRaWAN. Now, with the help of these high-band radios, Paulman consistently has 30x30 WiFi across his farm.
“When you’re in the city, you don’t even know what you’re getting for the most part, but you expect it to run Netflix, Hulu, on your phone. Out here, we couldn’t ever do that,” Paulman says. “It’s the biggest challenge facing rural Nebraska, I believe. I think it’s inhibiting our knowledge, our ability and our competitiveness, regionally, domestically and globally.”STATEWIDE NETWORK: Starting in 2019, Paige Wireless began establishing a statewide Nebraska LoRaWAN, which has since expanded into parts of Kansas and Colorado. To establish the network, radios were installed on various tall structures to handle small packets of data from in-field sensors, telemetry units and other devices. (Paige Wireless)
Bushell says Paige Wireless built this network without state or federal funding, but through self-funding and public-private partnerships.
“We wanted to show policymakers that if we can make the business case by covering agriculture, everyone can,” Bushell adds. “I think we’ve really gotten people talking. A lot of people just weren’t aware of what precision ag requires for connectivity, and how much data is in the field.”
Data is delivered every 30 minutes to an hour, 24/7, and is solely owned by the producer There’s a subscription rate of $2.50 a month, and Bushell hopes the low cost will help drive adoption.
“As an industry, we have 10% or maybe 15% of producers that are early adopters. Our goal is to get to 80% adoption,” she says. “I hope we see producers leverage data, soil moisture, water use data, and that they understand it’s easy to do with a small sensor. They don’t need to go to the market and buy a $5,000 base station with all the bells and whistles, which might be intimidating. They can use a small sensor that’s battery-powered and get real-time insights.”
“We built a statewide network for scalability. We wanted to prove what can happen to the cost of technology when it scales,” she says. “But we also wanted to incentivize the state to look at things differently, and see that producers are using water and other resources judiciously. They just don’t always have the data to back it up.”