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The Internet of Growing Things

Richard Adler | June 5, 2015
As the American farm grows increasingly connected, the need for rural broadband will rise

A modernized Communications Act will also be important in removing impediments to broadband development and encouraging continued private investment in new communications technologies. Wireless spectrum is a finite resource, and demand for it is growing exponentially. According to Cisco, U.S mobile data use will increase by 650% by 2018. Policymakers and regulators need to act to address this growing demand. In 2010, the FCC's National Broadband Plan set a goal of making 500 MHz of new spectrum available for mobile broadband use over 10 years, including an additional 300 MHz of spectrum within five years. However, the FCC has only made about 135 MHz of licensed spectrum available thus far.

Policymakers must develop strategies to bring more wireless spectrum into the marketplace, not only expand the reach of wireless networks, but also create a pipeline of spectrum for emerging technologies. Congress should consider a more modern spectrum policy to determine who gets spectrum and how it is used. Relying on market mechanisms to allocate and use spectrum could be more efficient and beneficial for the public than the current government allocation process, which is slow to react to market conditions and typically takes years to complete. Moreover, Congress must set forth a path to better manage the federal government's own large spectrum holdings, which is often not used efficiently.

Regulations should be flexible enough to allow companies to design and deploy innovative solutions that serve the needs of rural as well as urban residents. One possibility cited by the PCIA report is the use of lower-frequency spectrum bands, which cover a wider range, for rural cellular service. Another possibility is to permit greater sharing of spectrum bands in less densely populated rural areas to increase utilization.

Hacking the farm

If the technology is available, farmers are ready to use it. Perhaps the most interesting event in the development of agtech took place in April of this year when a group of computer coders spent a weekend working with a group of farmers deep in the middle of California's agricultural heartland. This was the first Apps for Ag Hackathon whose goal was to create new apps that met farmers' specific needs. It was the brainchild of Robert Tse, State Broadband Coordinator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in California, who described the event as "a rare occasion where the government took a risk on an unconventional initiative."

Six teams participated in the two-day competition, which was held on the campus of a community college in the small farming community of Coalinga. The winning entry was SWARM, a Tinder-like phone app designed to help farmers quickly identify unknown insects they find in their fields and determine whether they are dangerous or benign. The organizers considered the event a success and hope that it will be the first of many similar events in the future.

Rogers and Hammerstein's hit 1943 musical Oklahoma! included a rousing song about how "The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends." Today, it would seem, it's time for the farmer and the hacker to be friends.


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