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Chirping Soil and Autonomous Tractors: Connecting Agriculture in Nebraska - Episode 452 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
Christopher and Julie talk about the importance of reliable, symmetrical wireless data connections so farmers can deploy devices on farms which communicate across Long Range Wide Area Network (LoRaWAN) protocols to bring soil probes, combines, grain bins, wastewater management sensors, and other devices online to report conditions across far-flung fields. They also discuss how a robust rural network can support GPS for planting, irrigation, and harvest, as well as allow for data aggregation to increase efficiencies and allow mapping and maintenance via real-time drone operations.
Finally, Christopher and Julie dig into how more robust connectivity will help make sure high-quality jobs stay in the region, giving subsequent generations more incentive to stick around and help America's farms prosper.
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Julie Bushell: Our goal is to deliver the connectivity to the sensor where it's needed, rather than just saying, "Hey, we've got a network here and if you can connect to it, great and if you can't, sorry."
Ry Marcatilio-McCracken: Welcome to episode 452 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. This is Ry Marcatilio-McCracken here, at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This week on the podcast, Christopher speaks with Julie Bushell, president of Paige Wireless and co-chair of the Federal Communication Commission's Precision Ag Adoption and Jobs Working Group. Christopher and Julie talk about the importance of reliable, symmetrical wireless data connections so farmers can deploy devices on farms which communicate across long range wide area network protocols to bring soil probes, combines, grain bins, wastewater management sensors, and other devices online to report conditions back across far-flung fields. They discuss how a robust rural network can support GPS for planting, irrigation and harvest, as well as allow for data aggregation to increase efficiencies and allow mapping and maintenance via real-time drone operations. Finally, Christopher and Julie dig into how more robust connectivity will help make sure high quality jobs stay in the region, giving subsequent generations more incentive to stick around and help America's farms prosper. Now here's Christopher talking with Julie.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. Paul, Minnesota. Today, I'm speaking with Julie Bushell, the president of Paige Wireless. Welcome to the show.
Julie Bushell: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Christopher Mitchell: Thank you. You, I think, serve many state regions, but your heart seems to be in Nebraska. So just tell us a little bit about how you came to Nebraska and what Paige Wireless is.
Julie Bushell: Sure, absolutely. So I've been in the irrigation precision ag space for my entire career. And since Nebraska is such a heavily irrigated state, I've spent a lot of time here. And just two years ago, Paige Wireless was launched as a wholly owned subsidiary of Paige Electric and we started deploying a statewide LoRaWAN network, which stands for long range wide area network. And it's actually the first statewide network in North America. It's right here in Nebraska, so we're pretty proud of that.
Christopher Mitchell: Probably would've been easier to start in Rhode Island.
Julie Bushell: Hey, it's a very good point. Maybe our board would have been a lot happier with that too, Christopher. But two years later, the network is nearly completely finished with redundant connectivity, and the goal was 100% to lift innovation and agriculture in rural communities.
Christopher Mitchell: So I want to come back to the technology in a second, but first, there's a couple of other things. I wanted to touch on one, is that you are co-chair of the FCC, the Federal Communication Commission, Precision Ag Task Force. What do you do there?
Julie Bushell: So I am co-chair of the Precision Ag Adoption and Jobs Working Group. So we are actually tasked through the farm bill to get to recommendations on how we can accelerate broadband deployment for precision agriculture and also programs to help accelerate adoption of precision agriculture. And also, how to make sure there are high quality jobs in these rural areas.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, is there great inflation? Does precision agriculture mean anything other than just better agriculture? What does that term mean?
Julie Bushell: It's a very great point. I think we'll start at the foundation, which is GPS, right? GPS allowed for precision planting, precision chemigation, precision irrigation. At this point, it has grown into, I would say digitizing just about anything in agriculture. But to me it is also, I would say, besides calling it precision, let's call it efficientizing. Vision was absolutely perfect at the time, but now we're really working on efficiencies and profitability on the farm. And now that's grown into how are we going to benchmark our sustainable practices and really show the great job producers are doing?
Christopher Mitchell: Okay. And that's something that the parent company of Paige Wireless is involved in, right? What's that background?
Julie Bushell: Yeah, absolutely. So we actually started 65 years ago as a wiring cable manufacturer serving just about every industry vertical. Paige Precision Agriculture, we have devices that ride on our LoRaWAN network, but also wire, cable, cable assemblies, and just about every solution that we can provide to agriculture to connect it better or connect it more efficiently.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay. And then the last group, the last part of our definitional segment, is the Nebraska Internet Service Providers Cooperative. You were involved in creating that, I think. Tell me about it.
Julie Bushell: Yeah. We are the co-founders of the Nebraska Cooperative of Internet Service Providers. And the idea behind developing that cooperative was to enable the WISP, the wireless internet service providers and the middle mile internet service providers, to join forces and really work together to provide connectivity across Nebraska, leverage each other's resources in these rural towns to accelerate emergency response, should there be any issue. And I think the key component of that and what really sets us apart and what I'm most proud of is we need wireless connectivity to enable precision agriculture. And one of the issues in accelerating precision ag adoption has been exactly connectivity to that equipment that you want to move autonomously or live stream video off of. How do you deploy for that? Right? It's different than deploying to the home or the business. And so the co-op has made a commitment to learning from us, learning from our partners in these really large ag tech companies, exactly what's needed to deploy to make sure we have the connectivity needed on the farm.
Christopher Mitchell: So with that technology then, let's dig into the, I'm having trouble with this, LoRanet? I feel like my mouth doesn't want to make the right shapes.
Julie Bushell: LoRaWAN, and that stands for long range wide area network.
Christopher Mitchell: And how was that different? Because you're not actually connecting homes, you really are focused on the fields.
Julie Bushell: Right, yeah.
Christopher Mitchell: What does that mean?
Julie Bushell: So LoRaWAN is really, has grown to be the IOT network of choice, if you will. So the LoRa Alliance is the fastest growing technology alliance in the world, and it's an LPWAN, low-power wide-area network, designed for the internet of things, literally connecting everything. So what connects to it on our network are battery powered sensors with, a five to six year battery life. And it leverages chirp spread spectrum. So we can't even support live streaming video. What we're supporting is bringing data from the soil moisture probes in the middle of the field, natural gas detection. In a rural basement, it is wastewater management. It is any and all things that a cellular connection, or maybe a broadband connection's not needed for.
Christopher Mitchell: I think of these things as like chirping, right? Like every now and then, they're just sending out something, but they're not like every minute trying to send out information.
Julie Bushell: Yeah, absolutely. Yes. Most of our sensors are chirping out every 30 minutes or every hour.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay. So that's why. It's one of those things where people asking them, "Why don't they make the whole plane out of the black box?" and "If you can cover all of Nebraska with that, why don't we have a problem?" But that's the answer.
Julie Bushell: Absolutely. That's absolutely answer. And what we have found, most of the time or all of the time, for that matter, sensors currently are using cellular connectivity. In Nebraska, that's a problem because cellular service is spotty at best in many of the towns in Western, Nebraska, even central Nebraska. But on top of that, LoRaWAN technology was designed exactly for its use. Cellular, you're paying for maybe the ability to live stream video and the bandwidth you're paying for it when it's not needed. So our technology, the subscription fee is much, much lower than what you would pay on a cellular plan, as well as the battery lasts a lot longer.
Christopher Mitchell: And that's also why you're very friendly with the local ISPs, because you can all work together without competing.
Julie Bushell: Absolutely. It's a great point and that's actually how the cooperative was formed. We do work together and our goal right out of the gate was always to empower the rural ISPs is we become a customer of theirs. We need their bandwidth. So we pay them to deploy our network and to service our radios if they go down. And the hope behind that was if we can become a customer and we can increase the bandwidth that's required on the field or on the tractor or combine or anything in the ag space, we will inherently start creating the business case to bring fiber closer to those ISPs into these rural towns. And in a lot of cases, we have seen where that's the case.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that you said, I have this in quote marks, so the last time we talked. It means that maybe you said something close to this. "No one knows how to deploy for precision ag," and you talk about delivering to the combine, to the center pivot. What's so hard about it? You have a long range network, pretty much goes everywhere. End of the day, what's so hard about it?
Julie Bushell: Yeah. So LoRaWAN, when you look at deploying for precision ag, it's pretty easy, right?
Christopher Mitchell: I'm going to guess it's not.
Julie Bushell: Yeah. What we failed to take into account is these sensors, whether we're talking about broadband necessity or even LoRaWAN necessity, they're on the ground, most cases, some cases. They're under corn canopy, that's wet, hot. And while you can't really mess with physics, they're in a gully because our goal is to deliver the connectivity to the sensor where it's needed, rather than just say, "Hey, we've got a network here and if you can connect to it, great and if you can't, sorry." We have to deliver to that sensor. And there's a lot that goes into it.
Julie Bushell: And then in my comment previously that you quoted on precision agriculture, we need symmetric service. And so that is wildly different from your standard broadband definition of 10/1, or now 25/3. Upload and download is equally important in agriculture. And so having the ability to upload data and feed it back into a prescription is very important. And being able to get that bandwidth is very difficult to do, but it also involves some pretty specific know-how. In a lot of these cases we're designing for autonomy. We're designing for autonomous green parks and how does that look, and really what we've defined in precision ag now and what we like to call mission critical data. And that's what we're delivering and that's how I think it should be looked at.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. I want to just second what you had said before. I'm a photographer. I like to go on non-sequiturs or seeming non-sequiturs in these interviews. And I use something called PocketWizard to wirelessly trigger remote cameras set up behind goals in soccer, for instance. And I'm on a field that has no obstructions effectively, but I put a camera on the ground and it's sitting six inches above the ground and it has a wireless receiver on it. And if I don't get to a high point with a bounce effectively, with a repeater, I don't get to it. If I'm 50 yards away and I am six feet above the ground and I'm transmitting something on the ground, it just doesn't receive the signal half the time. It's infuriating.
Julie Bushell: It is infuriating. We totally get it.
Christopher Mitchell: So I wanted to talk about what we're seeing in Nebraska, because I've been quite critical of some of the CAF II awards. I've been concerned that that reverse auction had some really great winners. In fact, we're just writing about one of the cooperatives in Missouri that's expanding still, with the CAF II auction money. And I get the sense that CAF II was not as friendly to Nebraska as it was to some other States because of who got the awards. What is the dynamic there for that?
Julie Bushell: Yeah. Yeah, it's a great point. I appreciate you bringing it up. There were some amazing winners. There's some great ones who are doing awesome things for their communities out west. And so very much appreciate that because you can immediately see the growth that that enables. But also unfortunately, there were some out of state companies that won as well. And what we're seeing on the ground here in Nebraska is a push to buy out a lot of the rural wireless internet service providers that are totally entrenched in these towns. And they understand the needs and deliver really good service to rural areas. And it might be a two person show, and in some instances it might be a large company that's been invested in the town for the last 20 years. The companies that one CAF II funding are essentially trying to bully them out of the towns and shut them down.
Julie Bushell: And that doesn't necessarily mean they have any intention of delivering service there because they have up to 10 years to deploy. And our issue, and the thing we've been highly focused on and worried about, to be totally honest with you, is once these companies sell out, maybe because they feel they can't compete with these larger providers, there might not be internet service in that town for the next eight to 10 years. And we've only caused more problems, not solved any. And that's something we try and educate on. We've tried our absolute best to empower these small WISPs and ISPs in the town. And that's really how the cooperative got going, got moving, is if we can increase our buying power and leverage each other's resources, maybe we will have a better fight.
Christopher Mitchell: This is something that we've seen repeated in RDOF, with concerns from my point of view, which is that these two reverse auctions did not take into account local preference. And so you have a situation where you have a local ISP that has the trust of folks and is trying to get access to this. But then someone with deeper pockets, who's located far away and is basically making a bet on this, they get the money then and they can use that as leverage then against someone that has that. I see that the democratic bill for the infrastructure bill has now some mechanisms for a local preference, which will hopefully help for that. But it's just so frustrating to hear because you hear about these programs that are counterproductive, but when you have the money then directed out of state and now being used to harm in state interests, it's the exact opposite of what we want.
Julie Bushell: Absolutely. And I think you brought up a really great point. My comment about no one knows how to deploy for precision ag can equally apply here. Many of the small businesses in the rural communities understand how to deploy in the most rural areas and service may be a problem that that town has. Maybe it's a wastewater treatment plan that no one can get connectivity to. They have the know-how, and when that goes away, we've lost it all. And we are going to be here 10 years from now complaining about the same problem we have today. And it is very frustrating and we're doing everything we can to combat it. But as you can imagine, and not everyone can combat those deep pockets and some just are very worried that they're going to lose their entire business.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. And this is not a matter of a technology fight, right? This is like a local WISP versus a more national WISP, in this case.
Julie Bushell: Absolutely. There is no standard for best practices that won this whatsoever. And I appreciate you pointing that out. It's not like they're bringing fiber to town against a wireless fixed connection. It's literally oranges to oranges in this case.
Christopher Mitchell: I understand that we've talked about a variety of different things. You, when you mentioned the symmetry, you're delivering 500 megabit symmetrical to at least a one farm.
Julie Bushell: Yeah.
Christopher Mitchell: What does that enable when you have that kind of capacity?
Julie Bushell: Yes we are. And that's actually, when I say we've taken it upon ourselves to build the business case to bring fiber out further to that last mile, this is one of those examples, is through the sensors that we deploy, we're able to leverage those to get closer to autonomy. And just an example on that farm is autonomously driving a grain cart while creating walk around wifi around every moving object on the farm. And in this instance, the farm does not have great cellular connectivity. So it's just a matter of safety.
Julie Bushell: If there's an operator out there and something goes wrong, now they'll be able to connect via VoIP or however they choose to, but they will have the connection. It's also enabling prescriptions. So real time prescriptions, autonomous up linking, downlinking. It's pretty cool to see. Another opportunity this provides is live streaming drone footage, which is always a problem in precision ag when you need to come back, download for hours and then try and stitch things together. So there's a lot going on in that farm for sure, but I've made a bet that that's what pretty much all farms need today. And that's not even the early tech adopters. This is becoming a standard.
Christopher Mitchell: I get the impression that Nebraska, it's not like Kansas is amazing for connectivity, and I assume that it's pretty similar farms in two adjacent States like that. But Nebraska, I get the sense is losing some investment and some opportunity to use the latest technology, because it doesn't have the ability to deliver very high speed symmetrical service to many farms.
Julie Bushell: You're absolutely right. I have always said, we cannot speak precision ag without speaking about the vitality of the rural towns around it. And they go hand in hand. If we have the connectivity required to bring these technologies to the market, so ag tech, we will have companies come in, who has the technology. The technology is not the problem. It's the connectivity to run the technology. When that's in place, you've set the foundation for enormous growth. And that really is the domino effect, right? The producer is using these great technologies to automate, become more efficient, capitalize on markets, increase consumer confidence in the product through traceability.
Julie Bushell: But you're also bringing new companies to town who then went to invest in the towns and they bring their families and they help grow them and bring new ideas. And next thing we know, there it is, the next generation who wants to stay in their hometown because they love it, now has the opportunity to work in technology, work on precision ag. Maybe that's just stay on the farm because they expect connectivity where maybe their parents or grandparents just thought it was a luxury. We have now enabled that. And I think seeing the next generation be excited to stay in the rural towns and stay agriculture is probably something we all in this nation should be striving for.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm firmly in that camp. I think there's a variety of reasons. There's benefits to everybody in that people see a lot of opportunities to live very fulfilled lives in lower density areas. Right now, I feel like people that want that life feel like they're driven out of it for a variety of reasons.
Julie Bushell: Yes.
Christopher Mitchell: So what's getting in the way of that then? We know that, for instance, significant parts of Minnesota, 75% almost of North Dakota, 50% of South Dakota have fiber to the home in part because of these telephone cooperatives and the way that they've worked together, in some ways. And when our conversation at times previously, I had thought, and if anyone's wondering it was off the record, so I'm not referring back to a time where we did a previous interview. But I get the sense that you didn't see an immediate path to very high quality connectivity across Nebraska. And so what would you identify as the barriers to that?
Julie Bushell: I think most of the telcos will tell you it's too expensive to bring fiber out two miles down a dirt road for a single user. That would be probably the largest barrier. What I say to that now, and this is really both at the federal and state levels as far as funding mechanisms, is for funding we've always looked at just the home and the business. And that's where the funding goes, is how many homes and businesses can you cover? Well, there's maybe one home in a thousand acre farm and that's not going to rank very high of how you're going to use that funding. But if we can see funding shift from looking at just the home and business, but actually to the implements that are making the money, in Nebraska, 30% of our revenue is agriculture. We should probably make sure agriculture is connected first, right?
Julie Bushell: That's the economic driver. So if we're looking at the tractor or the irrigation system, the grain bin as potential customers and therefore potential funding sources, we've changed the game. Now, all of a sudden, instead of one home, you have maybe 10, 15 up to, I don't know, I might be getting crazy, but 100 different locations to deliver to. And once you expand that fiber capacity, maybe it's just to the barn, but that still enables a higher bandwidth fixed wireless application in my instance, mobile wireless applications. And then I think we've solved the problem. There's your business case.
Christopher Mitchell: An alternative that I was thinking as you were describing this is, it strikes me as odd that in a state with... So let me just, another non-sequitur. A friend of mine spent two years in the Antarctic, and one of the reasons he was chosen for this program was that they like to pick kids from the farm because kids from the farm can fix anything, right? They just know how to do stuff. Farmers are capable and we see this in England of trenching themselves and just presenting. The ISP might not even have to do that much work. Are we just not creative enough or are there other barriers to solving this aside from, I think, changes that you make a good argument for?
Julie Bushell: Yeah. I think maybe know-how. I'm going to go back to not knowing how to deploy for precision ag, because there are new technologies that come out every day that require some different type of connectivity. And maybe a little bit of that is the lag because the connectivity wasn't there. So there are these alternate base stations using 900 megahertz that just want to communicate for that particular solution. I think I would argue we don't have a ubiquitous solution to connect all things precision ag. It's very, very siloed.
Julie Bushell: And what we worked on pretty extensively is if we can deliver that connectivity, which we've deployed ubiquitously across 10,000 acres to enable, let's start getting the solution providers away from becoming also the connectivity solution provider. Let them just focus on the end game of that device, that solution, and get to a standard operating connection, if you will, of how all of these things can connect, because your point is well taken. If the farmer could trench fiber in or set up their own wireless network, that is awesome. But then they're still going to have these disparate systems that need their own base station. And how can we facilitate creating a standard? And that is something that we were working on with the FCC's Precision Ag Task Force, is interoperability and standardization so that we can expedite the proper connectivity to support all things precision ag.
Christopher Mitchell: And then I guess the other piece of it is I've long felt that Nebraska has tied one or one and a half of his hands behind his back with laws that stop. It's a state that's public power, there's public power districts, there's cooperatives, there's municipalities that have done it. None of them are really allowed to help get better internet access. And to me, that's odd that a state that is there. It's a heavy irrigation state, which means it needed electricity desperately in order to get where it is. And then to basically not value that and say, "We don't want to learn any lessons from the last time we had to touch everyone with a wire or some new new technology," it's a little bit odd to me.
Julie Bushell: Yeah. Your point, rural electrification and how Nebraska managed that as a leader is absolutely a great example of what we can look towards to solve the digital divide issue. Our partnerships with NPPD and the role electrics in the state has totally shown they're invested in the wellbeing of the communities. And that's the number one goal in my opinion, is having passion for the community so that they can stay vital and have a fulfilling life there. We have that. That's not lacking. And we haven't been a part of NPPD and several of the other rurals in the state doing a feasibility study. And what's really unique about that study is I believe it's probably the only one ever done that actually took precision ag for a data load, as well as LoRaWAN and these connected communities that are other initiatives that we have, and looked at it to help build the case.
Julie Bushell: As I was just talking, let's bring the data to precision ag into these implements to build the business case. We've been a part of that. And their forward thinking in that way is let's not build it to the home, let's build it for, instead of one acre tenant, maybe we have three, four and five acre tenants. And to that aspect, even if it's public private partnerships, which is what the goal is here, let's get it done. It will help expedite. Clearly the way we're doing it hasn't been working, and let's try something different. And there are many at the table who are asking to try something different and willing to help, and there's no lack of that here. So hopefully we can get that done.
Christopher Mitchell: So as we close out, let me ask you, you seem optimistic. Is that the right feeling right now, that we are going to solve this? We have some barriers to get through, but we're getting there, we're figuring it out.
Julie Bushell: I'm completely optimistic. I am for Nebraska because they've accepted our LoRaWAN network in a way that I don't think would've ever happened anywhere else.
Christopher Mitchell: Not Rhode Island.
Julie Bushell: Wouldn't have happened in Rhode Island, right? And it's because it's the mindset of, we want to try something new, we understand the value. Maybe we don't know how to do it, so let's work together to figure out how to do it and come to the table in ways that many don't. Many just want to stay to the tried and true. I think this is a state and a people that are willing to be very innovative. And that is what gives me my optimism. And then force it to get done, right? I think the more we educate the art of the possible, the more we will have voices who are willing to show up and speak up about how important this is for their own livelihoods to get done.
Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. Thank you so much for your time today.
Julie Bushell: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Ry Marcatilio-McCracken: That was Christopher talking with Julie Bushell. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle's @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this and other podcasts from ILSR, including Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules and the Composting for Community Podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support, in any amount, keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song, Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. This is episode 452 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Thanks for listening.