Wireless Technologies for Rural Farming Communities

Written by Dr. Michael Barts, Dr. Gerard Hayes, and Dr. Ko Takamizawa of the Wireless Research Center of North Carolina

Conversations about rural broadband access tend to focus on connections to homes and businesses, but precision agriculture increasingly requires reliable connectivity to the farm office and the field. In the field, farmers rely on wireless connectivity—such as fixed wireless and mobile cellular—to make real-time strategic and logistical decisions about their land, crops, animals, equipment, and farm facilities.

Connected sensors in the field collect the accurate, timely data that farmers can use to optimize their practices and conserve resources. Sensors in the ground can measure the moisture of soil to improve irrigation systems and reduce water consumption. Weather sensors can predict frost and storm patterns to reduce the risk of crop loss. Many sensors connect to mobile applications, allowing farmers to access the data when they need it, wherever they are, as long as they have mobile connectivity.

This white paper examines wireless technologies capable of providing broadband connectivity with an emphasis on rural farming communities. Other wireless technologies that are useful for extending broadband connectivity and for special applications, especially in agriculture, are also examined.

To provide access to rural households that are unserved or underserved by wired technology, cellular LTE and 5G are the quickest options for connectivity. Most rural areas have some amount of availability of cellular service, but it may not be sufficient. In areas where 5G is available, speeds can be competitive with wired technologies. Wireless internet service providers (WISPs) offer comparable services but may have limited-service areas.

Localities should consider engaging with current wireless service providers to encourage expansion of existing service areas and capabilities. We provide some suggestions as to the form that engagement might take.

In areas where neither wired nor wireless service is available, it is feasible to provide high-speed wireless connectivity using some combination of Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) and Wi-Fi, among other technologies. There is more expense involved in these approaches, but they can offer significant benefits when other options are exhausted.