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Plenty of Work for New Middle Mile and Precision Agriculture Committees

The Fiber Broadband Association (FBA) added two new committees to its roster at the December 2023 Premier Members Meeting for Middle Mile and Precision Agriculture, bringing the total number of committees actively involved with the Association to 16. Committees enable like-minded FBA members to discuss issues that directly affect them and the larger fiber broadband ecosystem, providing a forum to raise concerns, provide education, and implement solutions when feasible. 

Both new committees arrive at a critical point for their respective specialties. By any measure, NTIA’s Middle Mile grant program was substantially oversubscribed, leaving most applicants frustrated and wondering how they will be able to bridge the gap between existing core network capacity and rural needs for low latency, high-speed broadband. Precision agriculture is the path to drastically improve farming sustainability and efficiency, but fields full of sensors, fleets of autonomous vehicles, and data-driven methodologies require reliable, resilient connectivity. 

Middle Child Middle Mile

The NTIA Middle Mile Program awarded nearly $1 billion dollars to 39 organizations spread across the United States and its territories. But it’s only a down payment to the actual infrastructure needed to be built, with millions of new rural households to be connected over the next four years through programs such as BEAD. 

“Once NTIA tallied everything up, there were over seven and a half billion dollars in applications,” said Sachin Gupta, Chair of the FBA Middle Mile Committee, FBA Board, and Director of Business Development at Centranet, a subsidiary of Central Rural Electric Cooperative (CREC). “Middle mile tends to be that stepchild that always gets neglected by most state and federal bodies when it comes to fiber networks. They do not see an immediate need for a large-scale fiber network. Yet, when it comes to delivering connectivity to constituents in rural areas, there’s no affordable way to deliver internet to the last mile. That is the short-term thinking that has gotten us into the situation we’re in.”

FBA board member Sachin Gupta making the case for a Middle
Mile committee at the December 2023 Premier Members meeting.
Source: Fiber Broadband Association.

Gupta has seen first-hand the many problems of inadequate middle-mile infrastructure in his own backyard. CREC is building out a fiber network in its seven-county service area in Oklahoma. “Our average household density is about four to four and a half households per mile wherever you go. Unlike urban areas which have six to eight choices for middle mile, we’re lucky to have two choices. And most of the time, those two choices may be on the same glass, the same right-of-way route, so really, it’s just one choice prepending to two choices. That affects reliability and redundancy because there’s only one route. And because we don’t have enough choices, it makes the cost exceptionally high compared to what you pay for bandwidth in urban areas.”

For example, buying 100 Gbps of transit capacity as a rural service provider may cost 10 to 11 cents per megabyte, as compared to roughly 4.5 cents per megabyte if directly located at an Oklahoma City data center. The higher cost of bandwidth and the dearth of middle mile options for rural providers makes financially sustainable operations challenging even before considering new applications. 

“Companies like Google, Meta, and Microsoft are accelerating deployment of their low-latency applications,” Gupta said. “Gaming, manufacturing, edge computing, virtual reality. Lack of affordable middle mile will place the use of these new technologies out of reach, so it will put them into a new digital divide, because they can’t do telepresence or use VR for remote work or learning.” 

In addition, a single middle-mile provider running past rural areas presents a single point of failure because there’s only one path serving a community. Given the necessity of high-speed low latency broadband, Gupta said there should be more middle mile construction to increase redundancy through ring topologies in rural areas. 

Because of the necessity for rural middle-mile redundancy, Gupta said the traditional model for building it is starting to evolve. “Traditionally, someone comes and builds the entire thing and one entity runs it,” said Gupta. “That works in a lot of places where you have the investment to make it work.” Winning NTIA Middle Mile grant applicants put in an average match of 40%, with some going as high as 50%, on an average grant award of $10 million. 

“The new middle model is a coalition-based model,” said Gupta. “If I’m a provider, and next to me there’s a provider, and right next to them is another provider, and so on, you connect them all and you have a middle mile network that will allow you to connect the corners of a state. There are pros and cons to both models. The biggest con to coalition models is there’s no dark fiber available for linkages, because it’s created by leveraging existing assets. People have some overcapacity, but not a lot.”

On the plus side, a coalition-based organization that can reach urban-area exchange points now possesses the ability to drive the cost of connectivity downward. “The coalition can buy bandwidth as one huge network,” Gupta said. “They can get a substantial discount on transit and potentially can even peer at an IXC.” 

Uploading and Downloading the Farm

Middle mile is only one of many issues facing rural farms implementing precision agriculture technology, which just isn’t working without low-latency, high-speed connections. 

“I’ve got a lot of farmers in our area that are still using low bandwidth unlicensed fixed wireless access because they can’t get anything better,” said John Greene, Co-Chair of the FBA’s Precision Agriculture Committee. “Or they’re using their cell phones and a hot spot and that’s just no way to run a farm.” 

Precision Agriculture co-chair John Greene (R) discussing potential
committee functions at the 2023 Premier Members meeting.
Source: Fiber Broadband Association.

“Some of them are using old satellite technology because they can’t even get fixed wireless,” stated Jimmy Todd, Precision Agriculture Committee Co-Chair, 2024 FBA Board Chair, and CEO and General Manager at Nex-Tech. “Copper doesn’t cut it, geostationary doesn’t cut it.” Todd allowed that wireless likely had a role on farms and ranches that needed connectivity across what he dubbed “the last acre” to outbuildings, vehicles, and devices, but fiber was the anchor for broadband connectivity to cloud services and edge computing tasks that need to be performed locally.

Precision Agriculture Co-chair and FBA Board Chair Jimmy Todd. Source: Fiber Broadband Association.

“As precision agriculture evolves, more data will be generated that needs to be processed with less latency,” Todd said. “More dependable connectivity has to be there for real-time analysis and action. A lot of precision agriculture is based on iterations or steps, phases where data is collected, batched, and then processed to generate a plan of action, which is then implemented. Eventually, farmers and the support systems they will use will want to be able to do analysis and action in real time. To get that speed will require last-mile fiber for the bandwidth and latency.”

Todd speaks from his experience working with the Federal Communications Commission’s Precision Agriculture Task Force over the past four years. “I’ve heard farmers all over the U.S. talk about how fixed wireless is not cutting it,” Todd said. “They don’t have mobile connectivity in rural areas, and satellites are horrible. Farmers are trying to run a business that feeds the world, so they need the best technology available.”

Precision agriculture is extremely important to the ongoing success of farmers and the future of the environment. By leveraging IoT devices and remote sensing data from drones and earth observation satellites, farmers can deliver the precise amount of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers to the fields and deliver the necessary water to the crops that need it when they need it. The flow of information in precision agriculture is a two-way street, with field and crop conditions flowing into cloud services for analysis and returning what appropriate amount of materials fields and crops need to maximize growth without wastage.

“We are the breadbasket of the world,” said Greene. “We have been for decades and will continue to be for decades. The largest manufacturer of agricultural equipment in the world is John Deere, and not by just a little bit, but by quite a bit. As the 800-pound gorilla in that space, they continue to be more technology-oriented in their business. Working with their equipment will require low latency and you can’t get that from fixed wireless. We’re going to need higher symmetrical bandwidth, because we’re moving more information upstream and that’s the case even today.

Greene cited the growing broadband needs in Indiana, where he resides and is the is the Chief Executive Officer of New Lisbon Broadband and Communications and Chairman of the Board for Hoosier Net. The state was the fifth largest producer of hogs in the United States, according to a 2023 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, and third in the nation for the total number of chickens produced. 

“Farmers have got cameras everywhere in the barns, monitoring thousands of hogs and tens of thousands of chickens and turkeys,” stated Greene. “That’s a lot of bandwidth, not some small note from your tractor that you need to change the air filter. You have many video streams that need to go somewhere, and you can’t do it on a [fixed] wireless or a cell phone connection.”

Beyond bandwidth, Greene and Todd see a role for the committee in promoting interoperability standards for devices on the farm. “John Deere and other equipment manufacturers are using proprietary wireless to connect the tractor, combine, sprayer, whatever it is, back to a hub location,” said Greene. “From there, they upload it into their databases, churn the data, and generate maps with information on rainfall, yield, and so on. The downside is it’s all proprietary. That’s unfortunate because if I buy a combine from John Deere but have a spray from, let’s say, New Holland, now I have two disparate systems and they don’t communicate. That puts farms in a bad position.”

“What this reminds you of is the smart home/connected home. Ten years ago, everyone had their own little walled garden,” said Todd. “Until standards of interoperability are put out there and accepted, you won’t have what we’re seeing now with [the Matter home IoT standard] and the rapid advance of connected home and secure devices.” 

Precision agriculture faces other challenges beyond interoperability standards, including affordable and reliable high-speed wireless systems, and working through the balance between onboard computing, edge computing, and cloud resources for robot systems. 

“At CES last year, companies were demonstrating how they were spraying fertilizer on the seed while moving forward, and they also showed the use of cameras looking for weeds to directly attack,” said Todd. “But every single part of that rig had its own little computer. Most folks that work in the fields are pretty hard on equipment, right? Computers sitting on the arm of an implement or a boom are going to be in a very challenging environment. Simplifying that setup to an edge computing device or server on the farm with low latency connectivity and the ability to analyze the soil in real time, determining how to adjust that fertilizer or herbicide or perform another action is what you will want in the future of precision agriculture.”