The Connected Farm

Originally published by ContentLive.

Highlights

  • A quarter of rural properties in Britain are still stuck with substandard internet connections

  • Poor signals can leave farmers struggling to carry out basic processes such as form-filling, but also unable to take advantage of new agri-tech apps and tools

  • Some farmers and rural communities have developed bespoke broadband providers and satellite solutions to connect households and businesses to the internet

Faced with a lack of infrastructure, many British farmers are sowing the seeds of their own web revolution.

Mount Everest isn’t exactly known for its creature comforts. But at an altitude of over 5,000 metres, climbers at Base Camp can enjoy internet speeds of roughly two megabits per second (Mbps). That’s faster than in some villages in Gloucestershire, Cumbria and Somerset. According to Ofcom, roughly a quarter of rural properties in Britain still have to make do with substandard internet speeds.

Farmers feel the disconnect

In 2015, the government declared that broadband speeds of 10Mbps were to become a legal right for everyone in the UK. The prime minister, David Cameron, pledged to extend superfast availability to 95% of households by the end of this year. Despite these promises, a report by the British Chambers of Commerce published in March found that 30% of businesses in rural areas still had unreliable internet access.

MPs have concluded that Openreach, the arm of BT responsible for building and maintaining the nation’s broadband lines, is “presently underinvesting” in its infrastructure. As a result, a “patchwork of premises” across the remotest regions of the country are still struggling to connect to the internet.

“Although the land area not covered by broadband is enormous, the population who lives in it is tiny,” says Richard Guy, a Wiltshire-based farmer and founder of Agri-Broadband, an independent internet service provider that brings 4G-linked broadband to rural locations. “I live three miles from the [telephone] exchange and one mile from the next nearest house.” From a business point of view, he believes digging a fibre line to his house would not be seen as worth it.

Calling out for a connection

Farms don’t just need the right amounts of rain and sunshine to succeed. In the digital age, farmers must use computers to manage the financial and administrative aspects of their businesses. Kit Papworth, a contract farmer based in Norfolk, has had to battle with poor connectivity just to complete basic tasks – and he’s not the only one.

“Like every other business in the world, farms have to access the internet, not just for pleasure or information, but to fill in government forms, to pay wages and to apply for grants,” Papworth says. “These things are critical to how we run our businesses. We’re all trying to become more efficient while we’re working with connectivity from the 1970s.”

“Like every other business in the world, farms have to access the internet, not just for information, but to fill in government forms, pay wages and apply for grants”

Kit Papworth, contract farmer

Farmers are also feeling the lack of web connectivity out in the field. Agricultural machinery has grown more high tech in recent years, and farmers are able to improve operations with the help of internet-connected tractors and crop-monitoring drones. Brands such as John Deere now offer apps and tools that let farmers keep track of their yields and the performance of their equipment. However, this data can only be transmitted with the help of a reliable internet signal.

“Even if I’m sitting in my office, I can see where all my machinery is, check the speed of shafts and rotors, and monitor how much grain or diesel is on board because everything is tracked,” Papworth says. “But I can only see those things provided I’ve got connectivity and the machine has 3G or 4G. Often I’m in a place where I can’t even make a phone call, let alone access data.”

Home-grown broadband

Not content to sit around and watch the grass grow, some farmers have decided to take the issue of internet access into their own hands. In 2011, a group of volunteers in Lancashire launched a not-for-profit scheme called Broadband for the Rural North, or B4RN. Led by telecommunications expert Barry Forde, the organisation has since laid thousands of miles of fibre cable and connected 2,300 customers to gigabit-speed internet. For farmers disillusioned with national internet service providers, local solutions like B4RN are poised to make real change.

“Farmers listen to other farmers; that’s why we’re so busy,” says Christine Conder, one of B4RN’s founders, who, along with Forde, was awarded an MBE for her work in 2015. “One community gets [superfast broadband] and the word spreads to the next community that B4RN isn’t a con.”

Elsewhere in the UK, farmers like Wiltshire’s Richard Guy have set up their own bespoke broadband providers to serve disconnected communities.

Homes and businesses that can’t get underground cable-based internet can still rely on satellite solutions, like those provided by Avonline. This type of offering uses a dish mounted on a home to send and receive broadband signals from a satellite roughly 22,000 miles into space.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how rural communities get internet access as long as connections are fast and accessible. Lack of broadband could keep talent and investment out of the UK’s farming communities, so it’s imperative the issue is addressed as soon as possible.

“Farmers’ children go to university and won’t come home at the holidays because there’s no internet and they’re cut off from their social lives,” says Conder. “They miss any opportunities for starting a new business at home, or buying a house in the area or raising their children there.”

As drones and smart technologies promise to revolutionise agriculture, there’s never been a greater need for farmers to be connected to the internet. Without the efforts of projects like B4RN and Avonline, rural communities in the UK would be left behind. Now farmers are hoping the government makes good on its promise and delivers the connectivity that’s sorely needed.

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