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Why 5G connectivity matters to agriculture

4.5 min read

The evolution of wireless connectivity has allowed us to do more and more with our smartphones. The next big leap forward in speed and capacity is called 5G, but what does this technology offer us beyond making it easier to stream video to your phone or tablet? What about agriculture and 5G?

Let’s start with an explanation of how 5G is different from what we have now, then consider why this may be important for agriculture. 

What is 5G?

The term 5G refers to the fifth generation of cellular networks, which began deployment in 2019.  Most Canadians currently use 4G LTE, and some may still get only 3G connection, depending on where they live.

Devices in a 5G cell are connected to the internet and telephone networks via radio waves that come from local towers and antennas. There’s nothing new on this front – it’s similar to the way 3G and 4G LTE work.

What is new is the boost in bandwidth and download speed that 5G can bring. Without getting too deep into connectivity speed jargon, 4G LTE download speeds max out at one gigabit per second – 5G has the potential to reach speeds as high as 20 gigabits per second. The key word is potential. It will take time to get the 5G networks to the point where these impressive speeds will be commonplace. But even lower-performing 5G is still a big step up in terms of speed.

And it’s not just speed. Latency is a measure of how long it takes an action request or data to travel from one device to another and return. The promise of 5G is to get that lag time down to one millisecond: essentially instantaneous.

5G offers more bandwidth, higher speeds and less latency. That’s the good news. The trade-off is that because it uses higher-frequency radio waves, the range of these waves is shorter so more towers are needed. The initial rollout of 5G will have towers that use a range of frequencies delivering three different speeds. This will ensure coverage across the cell for each tower. It will take years to fully switch to the highest-performing 5G capabilities.

What about 5G in agriculture?

Theoretically, 5G will help agriculture make better use of the internet of things, artificial intelligence and robotics. It’s all about data and how fast it can be processed. We hear more and more about connected sensors in barns, greenhouses, fields and on equipment – this is part of what’s called the internet of things where anything and everything will be collecting data and connected to the internet. The 5G-enabled sensors will be able to collect and aggregate the enormous amount of data being collected and, in real time, push it through artificial intelligence algorithms to enable complex real-time decisions.

If agriculture is to fully benefit … data must move and be processed instantaneously.

A robotic weeder is a good example. The sensors on the weeder are looking for weeds while recognizing that the crop must not be disturbed. The sensors are gathering a lot of data that needs to be processed to let the robot decide what is and isn’t a weed. A 5G connection enables the weeder to make decisions and work faster. If you think about any robot or autonomous vehicle moving at high speed, decisions have to be made instantly for safety reasons.

The bottom line is, if agriculture is to fully benefit from the internet of things, artificial intelligence and robotics, data must move and be processed instantaneously. And 5G is touted as the best way to accomplish this. 

When will we get 5G?

Some telecom providers have initiated a 5G rollout in major urban centres like Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver and Montreal. This initial launch will see the 4G network augmented by 5G capability. It will take time for fully dedicated 5G coverage to expand beyond densely populated urban areas because more towers need to be installed. Rural Canadians may have a significant wait before full 5G capability is available to them. The other speedbump is that you’ll need a new phone to use it. There are some 5G-enabled smartphones and tablets, but not all are supported by Canadian carriers. If you’re buying a new device and want to be 5G enabled, check with your carrier to make sure it’s on the supported list.

While the promise of 5G to enable the artificial intelligence and robotic revolution in agriculture is exciting, many rural Canadians are still waiting for functional mobile connectivity and basic internet service for their homes. It will be at least a couple of years before we really start to see 5G availability and functionality in rural areas.

What about high-speed satellite delivery?

Rural Canadians may have access to high-speed internet for their homes from satellites well before 5G mobile becomes established. New providers of satellite internet services are eyeing rural Canada as a good potential market for their services. The good news is that you can access satellite internet anywhere – it’s not limited by the number and location of towers. The downside is that satellite internet speeds are significantly slower than what 5G is promising and historically, the cost has been higher than other options.

Satellite services require a dish to be installed on or near your house that exchanges signals with a satellite and communicates with your router to create a wireless environment. It doesn’t provide the speed or mobile service that 5G promises, but it’s definitely worth looking at.

From an AgriSuccess article by Peter Gredig.

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