The Australian agricultural industry has set an ambitious target: $100 billion per annum in farm...
Not All Connectivity is Equal – a comparison of on-farm connectivity.
In an age of smart farming and connected Agritech, connectivity has become a critical input for agriculture. Sadly, around 65% of farmland in Australia has no or very poor mobile coverage. The good news is that there is a range of connectivity options available. However, not all connectivity is the same. Some connectivity solutions weren't designed for smart farming applications and have limited use cases. Other connectivity solutions are specifically designed to enable digital agriculture and allow the connection and integration of all agritech systems across the farm.
If you are looking for connectivity solutions for your farming operation, the number of connectivity options can be overwhelming.
This guide, developed from our vast communications knowledge and experience with farm environments, will examine the factors you should consider when evaluating connectivity options for your farming operation.
What are the options?
There is a multitude of connectivity solutions available. There are two main types of data connectivity in farming. First, the internet connection to the farmhouse and office. Second, the mobile internet connection that is over the farmland. In today's article, we will focus on the connection that is over the farmland.
Usually, when a farm lacks connectivity, a private network solution is selected by farmers and growers to provide their farm with coverage, as there are little to no options from commercial mobile networks nearby. There are two avenues of gaining connectivity over the farm: narrowband or broadband.
Narrowband is limited in its capabilities. It is useful for low data-intensive activities required on-farm, such as collecting data from IoT sensors (tank levels, weather stations, soil moisture probes, etc.) and simple SCADA controls (pump on/pump off controls). In mobile coverage areas, Cat1 LTE and NB-IoT technologies are used for narrowband. However, most farm areas do not have mobile coverage, so LoRaWAN technology is used – proprietary wireless systems and satellite options to cover your farm. Careful selection is required for LoRaWan solutions. An important question to consider is, "what types of IoT sensors will your farm need now and in the future, and how do these connect?" This will help you determine an appropriate LoRaWAN solution for your farm that is future-proofed.
Broadband is the best connectivity avenue to support modern mechanised farming data use – which needs ubiquitous coverage to deliver optimum results. Most farms have no mobile broadband solution in place – the mobile network operators (MNO) coverage doesn't cover the vast majority of farmland. In areas where farms do have mobile broadband service, the coverage is patchy – "salt and pepper" in nature. An important factor worth noting is that 3G coverage will disappear from the Australian connectivity landscape by 2024, so any area reliant on that will possibly lose its network in the same way the change from CDMA to 3G reduced rural coverage about ten years ago. The patchy coverage means farmers will likely know where they can make voice calls on their land, but it does not support modern mechanised farming, where connectivity is required wherever machines are working.
However, even without MNO coverage a farm can still gain over the land broadband connectivity by installing a private mobile broadband network solution on their farm.
With this in mind, we will focus on the six main options available for farms wanting to install a private network solution on their farm:
- High Gain Repeaters (often wrongly called 'boosters'), use a high gain antenna combined with an amplified repeater usually manufactured by Cellfi, making the received signal much stronger.
- Wi-Fi fixed network – a network that uses an open publicly available spectrum (the radio frequencies) to connect devices.
- Wi-Fi mesh/ on-the-move network – the Wi-Fi uses a combination of fixed Wi-Fi stations and "bounces" signal off transceivers often on machinery/ vehicles as they move around the farm. For this solution to be effective, there must be a signal source (usually the house broadband) to connect the system.
- Private LTE (apparatus licensed) - a private mobile network that may or may not have native voice included, usually using the frequencies 1800 MHz or 2100 MHz. Most providers in this category use what is known as "Apparatus Licensing" as they do not own the spectrum needed to provide any radio network. These networks use the frequencies in a locally defined area up to a low power limit. This creates a private 4G network around a local area – sometimes on a purpose-built tower or an existing piece of farm infrastructure such as a tall silo. This provides a local secure network that needs SIMs in devices to access.
- Private/Public LTE (low band spectrum)- a private low-band 5G/4G network (around 700 MHz to 900 MHz frequency range). This is combined with full voice, mobile data, and NB IoT coverage over the designed coverage area. This, too, creates a private 4G/5G network around a local area – often on a purpose-built tower.
- Satellite on the move – a satellite antenna installed onto a vehicle or tractor that receives its broadband signal from satellites as it moves around the farm (or anywhere).
Not all connectivity is equal. Connectivity can be likened to vehicles; they vary significantly in their function, performance, and appropriate use case. With that in mind, we will compare these main mobile broadband network options against six crucial factors to help you determine which is the most appropriate for your farming operation.
A comparison of the differences between broadband connectivity solutions for farms.
Coverage is one of the most critical factors when selecting a connectivity solution, and coverage is the area a broadband network solution can serve. An important question to ask is, "can I get connectivity everywhere I need to deploy my AG sensors, AG Tech devices, AG robotics, etc.?" Frequently, only the farmhouse and farm buildings are considered not where farmers and their Ag Tech and Robotics spend most of their time – out in the fields.
Fixed Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi Mesh cover an area of a few hundred meters from their broadcast point. They are designed to provide a coverage “bubble” to the immediate vicinity of the vehicle, silo, or the equipment the Wi-Fi is mounted on. Farms looking to gain coverage from fence to fence with either of these three solutions will require more infrastructure to extend coverage. Proper and careful site surveys will be necessary to ensure each Wi-Fi or Antenna access point overlaps with another to prevent dead zones or interference.
High Gain Repeaters can improve larger areas of coverage over the farm. However, and this is a key point, there must be a signal received to be amplified. The device is inert for areas where a farm has no mobile signal at all.
Private LTE (apparatus licensed) 1800 MHz provides a larger coverage area than the previously discussed solutions. Roughly about an area of 1-2kms. However, when combined with low power outputs, as with most apparatus licensed providers, this will significantly reduce the coverage area. Therefore, more infrastructure will be required to provide coverage.
Private/Public LTE (low band spectrum) provides an extensive area of ubiquitous coverage, up to 10 to 15 km from its broadcast point. It has been specifically designed to cover large areas; therefore, less infrastructure is required to provide coverage. It is four to five times more efficient at providing coverage for rural areas compared to a typical 1800 MHz Private LTE solution. Growers looking to serve large areas across their farm, especially with mechanised and smart farming scenarios, and want coverage that will be future-proofed, will find this be an ideal and appropriate solution for ubiquitous coverage.
Satellite on the move – as the satellite coverage is pretty much everywhere then connectivity will be delivered in and around where the vehicle/tractor it is fitted to is. This can be an effective way to cover very large farms and stations that would otherwise require multiple towers to provide coverage. An advantage to this solution is that the coverage is wherever the vehicle is. So, it’s an on- and off-farm solution that covers the highway into town, to the lake, beach, etc.
Capacity and capability
Capacity (known as bandwidth) determines how many devices or data usage a network can support, and capacity affects the amount of data you can send across the network. An important question to consider is, "what data usage does my farming operation require now and in the future?" Connectivity is no longer just about being able to make phone calls; it's also about supporting AG tech, sensors, remote collaboration, smart machines, robotics, etc.
Smart farming, precision farming, and autonomy in agriculture will require increasing amounts of data usage, so knowing a network's ability to have the capacity and capability to support this is a vital piece of the puzzle. Selecting a network solution that can't support your farming operation's data usage requirements will be like trying to stuff cattle into a compact city car. Ultimately, capacity helps determine the appropriate network solution for your farm.
High Gain Repeaters have been designed for lower capacity, more for voice than data. However, they do provide some useful data connectivity in areas of weak signal. For use with robots and in some precision Ag applications, repeaters may be limited as they will not provide an amplified signal in areas where there is no existing signal.
Fixed Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi Mesh should have improved capacity in comparison to High Gain Repeaters. However, a single access point (such as the farmhouse broadband or where the MNO gateway is) can only pass through so much data usage or number of device connections. In order to gain more capacity with this solution, it will mean more infrastructure. Wi-Fi solutions struggle in farming environments; they tend to receive interference and congestion and are unable to effectively perform amongst farm environments, such as through trees. Due to the limitations of Wi-Fi solutions, many farms, especially with increasing data usage for smart farming applications, feel the growing pains of using this solution when they increase their digital agriculture use.
Private LTE (apparatus licensed) 1800 MHz and Private/Public LTE (low band spectrum) have been specifically designed in such a way to enable support for a very high density of devices/data usage. It is important to bear in mind, in terms of capability, that Private LTE using 1800 MHz spectrum, much like Wi-Fi, can struggle to effectively perform amongst the materials found in a farming environment, such as trees in an orchard. Private/Public LTE (low band spectrum) does not have this limitation, its capability to perform in a large number of farming environments is very good.
Satellite on-the-move solutions vary widely in their capacity and capability abilities. Traditional satellite solutions had large latency and slower speeds limiting their use in robotics however this has been resolved by LEO constellations and they also deliver very high speed – often much faster than the MNO’s network. Satellite does need a clear view of the sky, so some farm environments such as orchards limit its capacity.
The many recent high-profile security breaches in the country that resulted in sensitive data being leaked emphasize the importance of having effective data security. Some network types have limited security capabilities, putting a greater burden on your AG tech devices, sensors, smart machines, and robotics to ensure data transfers aren't compromised. Business critical and sensitive data for your farm must remain secure.
High Gain Repeaters are secure as the devices connected to them all require a SiM card for the host MNO network – so they are secure as that MNO network.
Fixed Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi mesh may have security weaknesses due to the nature of their design. They can broadcast their identity openly by default, even when the network is encrypted. Weak encryption, access point misconfigurations, and shared passwords can also lead to a more compromised Wi-Fi network. However, the remote location of some farms balances this issue.
Private LTE (apparatus licensed) 1800 MHz and Private/Public LTE (low band spectrum) offer better security by default. These networks leverage SIMs authentication to provide identity and control of each device on the network. They also utilize centralized encryption by default. SIMs authentication is significantly more difficult to "hack" compared to passwords. As a result, these two network solutions offer better security by default and certainly as good as any MNO solution.
Satellite on-the-move solutions generally have overall good security in agriculture settings. These solutions are most often used in military and emergency services vehicles, so the security layers are very good.
The reliability of a network is how well it performs on-farm for a given period of time. The reliability of a network is becoming more critical for farming operations; the downtime of a network can become very costly to your business. Additionally, a network that is intermittent or experiences interference will prevent certain activities from occurring on-farm, such as smart farming and autonomy. Growers investing in robotics and smart machines need them to perform seamlessly without interruption; an unreliable network becomes unacceptable for a farming business when it prevents these business-critical operations from occurring.
Factors that cause interference in a network connection are buildings, machinery, silos, electronic devices, and weather conditions. Some networks are more prone to this interference than others.
High Gain Repeaters can be affected by heavy rain between the donor MNO tower and the repeater location. They can suffer when the tower is in heavy use or when the vehicle moves out of signal area, when there is nothing to repeat the signal is lost.
Fixed Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi mesh are all prone to interference or service reduction from other networks and physical obstacles such as tree lines. This is due to their low power and higher band public open spectrum use. This means careful design is required and while type mesh networks certainly can “heal” any gaps, that doesn’t work so well in open farm environments where there are less Wi-Fi network elements installed on fewer vehicles etc.
Private LTE (apparatus licensed) 1800 MHz and Private/Public LTE (low band spectrum) by default have better reliability. They can put up with high data usage, changeable weather, and physical objects with more reliability in comparison to the other solutions. Private/Public LTE (low band spectrum) has strong reliability in a farming environment due to its enhanced ability to perform amongst all the materials found on-farm.
Satellite on-the-move's reliability is directly related to the satellite constellations it uses. When it's used with the older constellations it can be badly affected by rainfall (“rain fade”). When this solution is used with the more modern LEO networks, reliability is much better because their satellites are nearer to Earth. As a result, the LEO networks have better signal between them and their dishes on the Earth. However, they must have a clear sight to the sky to pick up the signal meaning in some farming scenarios like orchards they may not be effective.
With limited resources, the cost of implementing a network solution on-farm becomes an important consideration. Getting it right leads to improved production from effective use of digital farming solutions. An important question to consider is, "what devices/AG Tech/smart machines/robotics on my farm require connectivity and what is the area where they all must operate?" This will help you determine how large the area connectivity is required for your farm and the infrastructure each solution requires to cover that area.
High Gain Repeaters are a lower-cost option and can be highly effective if the issue is weak signal from the MNO rather than no signal – remember where there is no signal at all these will not help.
Fixed Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi mesh are medium to high-cost options for areas requiring coverage. However, over larger areas or a farm with more physical objects, more infrastructure is needed. As a result, costs can balloon massively over larger farms due to the number of Wi-Fi elements needed to cover the area.
Private LTE (apparatus licensed) 1800 MHz and Private/Public LTE (low band spectrum) have a potentially higher initial cost if tower buildings are required. Both are similar in terms of cost for a signal broadcast point/tower. However, Private LTE with 1800 MHz spectrum covers a much smaller area compared to Private/Public LTE (low band spectrum). Four to six times more towers/infrastructure will be required when using Private LTE with 1800 MHz spectrum to cover the same area in comparison to Private/Public LTE (low band spectrum), making it a very costly installation. Private/Public LTE (low band spectrum) is the more cost-effective solution.
Satellite on-the-move costs vary significantly depending on the provider. However, as each antenna covers the immediate area, a farm requiring satellite on the move for multiple vehicles, smart machinery, and robotics may need several sets of equipment – however they can also move from machine to machine as the seasonal use of implements changes. They are also effective for users who are not fixed at one farm or move around locations, such as vets.
Overall, farmers wanting fence-to-fence connectivity over their farm need to carefully assess their current use needs and consider their future digital farming plans to ensure a balanced assessment of approach.
For each network solution, their signal strength varies. This is significant for farming businesses, especially horticultural operations. Many network solutions cannot penetrate through orchard foliage/canopy. This is challenging when you require connectivity for your smart machines, AG Tech, and robotics under the canopy within the orchard. It is essential that these critically operational machines, devices, and robotics can receive connectivity while working in the orchard, so they work without interruption.
With the exception of Private/Public LTE (low band spectrum), all the other network solutions struggle to penetrate dense objects such as orchard foliage, berry foliage, horticultural greenery, buildings, silos, etc. Private/Public LTE (low band spectrum) has lower frequency signals which increases the ability of the signal to penetrate obstacles found in the farming environment and provide effective connectivity across the farm.
Connectivity across the whole farm fence-to-fence allows growers to adopt digital agriculture and a range of technologies, AgTech devices, robotics, and automation. Appropriate connectivity solutions for farms should allow basic connectivity functions to occur, such as voice and mobile data use. Critically, it should also have effective, ubiquitous coverage over the whole farm, have the capacity and capability to support data-intensive farming activities, be reliable, have a secure network, be cost-effective overall, and be future-proofed.
What is the result of having a network solution that ticks all those boxes? It enables connectivity for data-intensive robotics, automation, AI, machine learning, smart-farming, remote collaboration, and more intensive precision farming functions. This connectivity ultimately helps farmers and growers to increase on-farm efficiencies, improve profits and reduce losses, and increase production sustainably now and into the future.
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Who are Connected Farms?
Connected Farms is an Australian-owned company providing connectivity solutions to farms across Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Connected Farms was formed to specifically provide wide area mobile broadband solutions to the agriculture sector with the vision of connecting farmers and enabling digital agriculture.
At Connected Farms, we are passionate about sharing our story and the positive difference fast and reliable connectivity has made to our customers' farm operations. For more information, visit HERE.
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