Amid the gadgets at CES I had a profound moment where my thinking abruptly changed. In a conversation with John Deere about 5G one of the participants mentioned that for the last year the company had been trying to work with regulatory agencies to change the way they think about the value of spectrum that provides broadband in rural areas.
Traditionally, licensed wireless spectrum is valued based on the number of people in a given area covered by those airwaves. The formula is expressed as a dollar per megahertz per pop. This means cellular spectrum in rural areas is often cheaper than in urban areas, and there are fewer incentives to push fast wired broadband to those areas.
John Deere wants to add something new to the mix to encourage Washington to promote investment in faster wireless service in rural areas.
John Deere has been adding “smart” features to its industrial farming equipment for over a decade. As computing and broadband speeds have improved, it’s adding more and more capabilities. With the acquisition last year of Blue River Technologies, it now has the ability to use computer vision on tractors to recognize weeds.
With this technology, for certain crops John Deere equipment can identify individual weeds in a row of crops and zap it with a shot of weedkiller. Through precision agriculture enabled by computers, every plant in a field can get the loving care that my father-in-law’s three tomato plants get. That boosts yields and helps address some of the big demographic challenges facing the world’s food supply.
But to boost crop yields John Deere needs connectivity. In rural areas connectivity can be hard to come by, which is why John Deere is thinking about how to get regulators to think about the value of wireless broadband by more than the traditional licensed spectrum valuation formulas.
By getting regulators to focus on more than just people, it could encourage regulators to develop programs that push fast broadband even in remote areas. Currently, rural areas can be black holes of limited connectivity. And by encouraging carriers to view rural spectrum as more valuable, farms might get better coverage.
So instead of people, regulators should think about tractors. Or wind turbines that could be repaired with the aid of a local technician and augmented reality. Or any number of devices that could be made more productive with the addition of broadband-enabled technology.
“There’s no question that the internet of things will change the value of spectrum,” says Glenn Lurie, the CEO of Synchronoss. As President and CEO of AT&T’s mobility consumer operations Lurie handled the IoT for years. When I asked him this week about valuing spectrum in rural areas with an eye for the internet of things, he was adamant that connectivity could provide value, but skeptical that the way spectrum was valued would ever change.
Jan Geldmacher, president of Sprint Business, was even more skeptical. He was concerned that if we changed the way we looked at spectrum’s value, it might disadvantage rural areas because carriers would see the cost of rural airwaves rise.
But spectrum valuations aren’t the only tool available to regulators. If they could think beyond people when determining grant recipients, or build programs that advance rural connectivity, that could work.
With 5G wireless, the ability to provide gigabit wireless access to a fixed location such as a farm becomes possible (as long as there’s a fiber connection somewhere that can take traffic to the rest of the internet). Because developments in precision agriculture or using augmented reality to fix remote pipelines or wind turbines is now a possibility, it does seem short-sighted to focus solely on people when thinking about the value of our nation’s airwaves or broadband. Sure, a person’s phone calls are important, but so is delivering a bushel of organic corn or even offering telemedicine in a remote hospital.
It’s time to start thinking of machines as a market for broadband. Not just people.