One key takeaway technologically from the coronavirus will be the need to expand rural Internet connectivity, said Dr. Michael Adelaine, the current vice president for technology and security at South Dakota State University.
Adelaine is serving on a working group part of the national task force aimed at reviewing the connectivity and technology needs for precision agriculture in the U.S. as his career with SDSU comes to an end. He will retire from the university in mid June.
Adelaine was selected by Sen. John Thune’s office to help bridge the gap between those who know about precision agriculture needs, and those who also understand the immense realm of Internet connectivity in rural America.
The Precision Ag Connectivity Task Force aims to provide advice and recommendations for the Federal Communications Commission on how to assess and advance the deployment of broadband Internet access for precision agriculture.
The task force was created by Congress as part of the 2018 farm bill. With the unexpected hit of a global pandemic, Adelaine said he believes the virus, while horrible in its own right, serves as a real-world example of the need to get rural America a stable Internet connection.
“Now we have a real-life example of what we need,” Adelaine said in a Zoom call from his home.
However, even with many struggling to get connected and stay connected, Adelaine said he has been impressed by the resiliency of the infrastructure the U.S. has been trying to replace.
“We went from 0 to 100 mph not knowing if we could,” he said.
When the virus is all said and done, Adelaine believes many across America will place Internet with the high priority that landline telephones and the interstate highway system received when they were setup.
“We will see it as critical,” he said.
Adelaine started his career as a Nebraska high school ag teacher and moved through the ranks during his time with schools and universities as an expert on technology. As SDSU’s first IT chief, he helped set up the first university-wide email system for students, which also served as the very first university working with Microsoft to test the ability of Hotmail. Now in his seventh year as the VP of technology and security, Adelaine said it’s time to move on, but not time to stop helping advance agriculture in South Dakota and the Midwest.
The precision ag work group is addressing just how connected production ag land is across the country. Adelaine said they’ve been looking at USDA ag land maps and overlapping them with Internet coverage to see if there are major gaps in the data, or if there are spots that are not receiving the coverage that is claimed.
They’ve been working with producers and stakeholders gathering ground-truth testimonies on the state of Internet connectivity and working with algorithms from groups across the country to inform of the taskforce on how monies can be distributed to improve rural connections.
The goal, Adelaine said, is to provide everyone with the very basic Internet broadband standards the FCC has laid out, which is 25 megabits per second upstream and 3 megabits per second downstream – or, as it’s commonly known, 25 up and 3 down.
“If we could just get to that point, we’d be in a good spot,” he said.
While fiber optics remain the standard for supplying a stable Internet connection, Adelaine said the taskforce has groups looking at options ranging from 5G towers to satellite internet programs such as Tesla’s Starlink initiative. Whatever the path may be, Adelaine said it’s critical to look at the total volume of data transfer needed, rather than the needs of an individual farmer.
“Don’t talk about the one farmer,” he said. “If you come out here during the harvest time, all you do is see lights collecting data.”
Using broad numbers that vary dramatically based on operation size, Adelaine said that the average cornfield of 640 acres could collect up to 280 terabytes of data. To put that in perspective, the average laptop hard drive has 1 terabyte of data storage. The staggering amount of data going between tractors and endpoints is why stable, reliable Internet connections are needed to push precision ag further as it collects more and more data.
“The greatest thing about this virus is it proved the amount of information that is needed and transferred and it’s nationally important,” he said.
The taskforce met virtually during a March 25 call. While the farm bill stipulates that the taskforce must meet three times per year in person, Adelaine said they’ve been having to work around that as the virus continues to spread nationwide.
The next meeting is set for mid-July while the final meeting of the year will, hopefully, be held in-person on Dec. 9. As it stands, Adelaine said the task force is hoping to end his participation at the end of 2021, so that the task force could begin legislation recommendations before its 2023 end date, as set by the farm bill.
During that first meeting with the task force, Adelaine said he was happy to see how important rural communities are to those far removed in Washington and more urban states.
“Everyone speaks to how important this is to the rural communities,” he said.
While the working group Adelaine is part of is a private and closed group, he said he is willing to solicit testimony from those who believe they can be of use for determining the stability of their internet connections on their farming operations.