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Will 5G, StarLink and Private Networks Narrow the Digital Divide?

Chris Bennett and Clinton Griffiths

February 3, 2021

No internet connection. Connection interrupted. 404. These menacing alerts are a constant reminder of the haves and have nots of connectivity.

Even though the internet has been around for three decades, some 40% of the world is yet to get online. The Federal Communication’s Commission (FCC) estimates 19 million Americans lack access to high-speed internet. In rural areas, nearly a quarter of the population has no access.

As investments pour in for rural connectivity and 5G deployment, new opportunities are expected to bridge this momentous gap.

“In about 10 years the person who is running the family farm will be the kid who’s never known a world without technology, the internet, an iPhone or an Android,” says Jim Carroll, an agricultural futurist.

In just the past decade billions of dollars have been spent on closing the digital divide. Connect Americans Now, a coalition of 250 organizations representing agriculture, education and other businesses, calculates:

  • Congress has allocated roughly $34 billion in funds to improve infrastructure and broadband access.

  • That’s on top of the $47.3 billion spent from 2009 to 2017.

Despite the outlay, 2020 showcased the size and scope of the problem.

“Even prior to COVID-19, everyone knew the state of rural broadband was not good,” says Steve Cubbage, precision ag consultant and co-founder of Record Harvest. “What this pandemic did was not only expose how deep the digital divide truly is between rural residents and their city cousins but also widened it by a country mile.”

5G: A Faster Future

In its time, 2G crawled at 40 kilobytes per second, and was passed by 3G’s capacity for megabytes per second. 4G bounced in with hundreds of megabytes per second. Now 5G beckons with gigabytes per second. In theory, 5G provides a wireless speed 20 times faster than 4G long-term evolution (LTE).

The 5G benefits of speed, low latency and the ability to connect incredibly high numbers of devices is coupled with a few limitations, notes Kevin Monk, ag tech consultant, owner of The Monk Approach and Illinois farmer.

“In a city with countless connection points giving access to the network backbone, 5G won’t be any problem,” he explains. “But on the farm there will be large gaps in those connection points. The connection points that use a higher frequency have a reach of a few hundred yards maximum, making it unlikely to cover large swaths of rural areas. But I do think technology breakthroughs will follow to extend 5G to larger areas than previously thought possible.”

John Deere is pushing hard at the door of widespread broadband access and advent of 5G tech. Lane Arthur, vice president of data, applications and analytics at John Deere, contends the arrival of 5G will translate to grower benefit.

“We’re embedding the modems into our machines today, so they won’t be an add-on, and the benefit is everything from communication between machines to Deere using data to alert growers to part failure,” he says. “We’ve scaled our data pieces to match 3G and 4G, and we will scale to 5G.”

Arthur cites See & Spray, the ability to isolate weeds with herbicide applications, as one example of a leap in real-time digital connection.

“All new tech goes through a hype cycle of excitement, doubt and then settles to a realistic stage,” Arthur explains. “5G is no different and we’ll work our way through the hype, but these benefits such as See & Spray to the farmer are very real.”

Chad Swindoll, a Mississippi corn and cotton farmer, sees 5G as enabling technology but with limited use for the mainstream farmer while in its initial stages.

“The pros mean more exposure, farmers learning new tech and having it all become mainstream. The cons mean it may be harder for a farmer to opt out, and he may end up paying a premium for things he may or may not use,” says Swindoll, also owner of J19 Agriculture, an independent consultancy on ag technology and data.

A Starlink Future

Curtis Garner, founder of Verdant Robotics in Los Banos, Calif., was standing in the darkness of an apple orchard at 7 p.m. in 2019, working on a robot, when 15 equidistant stars appeared overhead. As the chain of lights moved fast and straight across the night sky, Garner exclaimed out loud: “What in the hell is that up there?”

Answer: Starlink. Started in 2015, by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Starlink is a decade-long project aimed at providing internet access across the globe via a blanket of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. The first Starlink satellites launched in 2018, and roughly 1,000 have been deployed as of December 2020. By 2027, Starlink could have more than 40,000 satellites in LEO action.

Starlink hopes to capture a base of hard-to-reach customers with high-speed internet at a pace less than 5G, but possibly 10 times faster than 4G LTE.

“Preliminary ground testing has already begun,” Cubbage says. “In fact, Starlink provided remote internet service to emergency command centers directing firefighting crews in Oregon and Washington.”

In 2020, the FCC awarded Starlink more than $880 million from the $9.2 billion offered in phase one of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. Starlink’s win means it’s now required to deliver internet to more than 640,000 rural and hard-to- connect homes in the U.S.

Starlink isn’t the only game in the LEO satellite town. Telesat, Viasat and Amazon all have LEO satellite-based internet plans. Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which is likely to be the biggest competitor to Starlink, received FCC approval. The company plans to deploy 3,200 LEO satellites worth $10 billion to improve rural broadband and help wireless carriers extend LTE and 5G to underserved regions. Half of those satellites are slated to be launched in the next five years.

Via a blanket of low Earth orbit satellites, Starlink, a project of SpaceX, aims to provide internet access across the globe. Photos: NASA; Mark Handley, University College London

Private Network Payback

While higher speeds from 5G and satellites are coming, the technology for private internet networks on farms is a possibility today. These private LTEs are a game changer for agriculture, Garner says.

“If you build a private LTE network, you just have to have a spectrum to operate in,” he says. “The whole system is affordable and will get cheaper and cheaper.”

CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service) is an open-licensing spectrum used by the U.S. Navy and is cited as a solution by Garner.

“It’s a very secure signal and has good speeds at 40 MHz bandwidth and 400 Mbps down and 100 Mbps up,” he says. “I’m talking off-the-shelf products you can buy from Samsung, Ericsson and such.”

Ukama and Qin are two additional companies at the forefront of private network construction.

“These startups are taking open-sourced software and commercializing it,” Garner explains. “This is not future technology; this is happening now.”

Ukama, a 2020 startup, jumped out of the gate with the offering of low-cost and managed end-to-end cellular connection, accessible to everyone. Basically, Ukama enables a landowner to set up a personal network, provides all hardware and software, and manages the lot.

“You can become your own AT&T,” says Ukama founder Kashif Ali, “and the data usage belongs to you. There are growers paying $5,000 to $10,000 per month to cover farms, but this will be highly economical and rapidly return ROI. I’m talking super cheap in comparison no matter how many miles or acres you need to cover.”

Farmers, Ali observes, are often afflicted by poor or expensive coverage. “Don’t wait five to 10 years for someone to bring 5G connectivity across your farm, when they haven’t even arrived with 4G. Private networks are the answer.”

A Factory Without Walls

After the past 30 years, Garner knows there’s plenty of skepticism, over-hype and big promises.

“For row-crop farms, maybe they’ll have to have their own cell towers or private networks, but the buildup farmers hear about, and understandably are sick of, is not going to come to fruition tomorrow, but it’s going to land in our lifetime,” Garner says. “All we’ve got to do is put the pieces together, and that’s why this is an exciting time to be in agriculture.”

High-speed internet is the gateway to everything. Technologies such as 5G, StarLink and private networks are all pieces of the puzzle to help farmers harvest this vital tool.


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