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The new frontier of smart farming powered by 5G

Yehia El Amine

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Farmer managing his industrial farm with a mobile app on his tablet, IOT and smart farming concept

A new green revolution is coming our way, and it looks promising as the prospect of 5G comes ever closer within humanity’s grasp.

According to a study done by the United Nations, agriculture is a multimillion-dollar industry and one of the largest in the world, accounting for almost 1 percent of GDP in the UK, 6 percent in the U.S., and 12 percent in Australia.

It’s only going to go upwards as the demand for food and produce is increasing, as the world approaches eight billion in population.

However, as any big industry, its Achilles’ heel lies hugely affected by changes in temperature and moisture levels (among other things), meaning that these problems surface when the damage has already been done.

The digitization of farms will not only save billions in waste and losses, but also improve the quality of food that we consume. “The collective ability of farmers to produce more food more efficiently may be how the world feeds the global population, which will hit nine billion by 2030,” the study by the UN stated.

Thus making the deployment of 5G to be a saving grace for farms globally, especially in the fight against climate change.

Each degree Celsius increase in temperature could reduce global yields of soybeans by 3 percent, wheat by 6 percent, and corn by 7 percent, according to a report by the National Academy of Sciences.

“One reason is the effects of climate change on animal pests and diseases, as these changes can make them expand into new regions, creating invasive species that can be detrimental to crops,” the report added.

With this in mind, how can 5G simultaneously benefit farms and climate change in one swoop?

Let’s jump right in.

The advantage of smart farming is that it can calculate and estimate a wide array of risk factors as well as present farmers with important data to plan around these said risks.

It allows decision-makers to take the necessary actions with the best possible information presented to them while providing recommendations in the scope of efficiency and resource-friendly approaches.

Accurate weather forecasts, information on soil conditions, as well as maturity level of plants and insect detection, are all valuable information that demand drastic action from farmers to reduce waste and cost.

The Internet of Things (IoT) also has a huge role to play; an example of this is through autonomous vehicles, where managers can provide specific instructions on where and how to deliver certain crops, especially with products that need extra care such as milk, which requires immediate processing thus greatly increasing its quality.

Precision agriculture

Commonly known as “smart farming,” precision farming aims at giving extremely accurate treatments to crops; gone will be the days of treating entire fields under the same brush under the same level of care all around, but rather provides farmers with specific information about each crop row and what is needed.

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Farmer managing his industrial farm with a mobile app on his tablet, IOT and smart farming concept

This will not only reduce the waste of water, food, fertilizer, and pesticides, but will also give centralized information about the land and crops in real time.

With the help of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning algorithms, it will give farmers insight into predicting the susceptibility of crops to disease, and inform farmers of where exactly pests and diseases are located.

The drones are coming

The emergence of 5G-powered drones will be the turning point for farmers far and wide; equipped with weed scanners and crop sprayers, they will have the ability to scan entire fields, apply pesticides at a more precise rate.

While many fear that the role of manual labor will fade, they still have a role to play in what’s to come; the drones will provide them with the information about the patches that need the most care, efficiently allocating their time accordingly.

An example of this can be seen through Volocopter’s new VoloDrone, which is an unmanned, fully electric, heavy-lifting utility drone capable of carrying loads up to 200kg. The drone can transport a wide array of things anywhere on the farm, such as transport boxes, liquids and equipment.

Or acting as an air-based scarecrow to fend off birds in the vicinity with the sound of its wings.

Intelligent field monitoring

This is where AI-powered sensors come into play, which have the ability to detect, in real-time, data on weather, air, soil parameters, crop growth, and animal behavior. An example of this can be seen through sensors equipped onto drones to analyze nutrient status.

The data collected can be then merged with weather and a number of agronomical factors to apply an optimal quantity of fertilizer. Experiments done by Chinese telecom titan Huawei over the span of two years, showed that it was successful in decreasing the amount of nitrogen fertilizer by 10 percent without any yield loss.

Precise livestock care & tracking

Locating and monitoring the status of valuable livestock is considered critical to all farmers alike. Accurate tracking and monitoring can determine the health of cows, their food intake, and even their fertility level, which allows farmers the ability to make the best possible decision. 

According to a study done by Huawei, 5G will enable very high levels of connectivity and geo-location services that can reduce cost, while increasing the performance and wellbeing of livestock far and wide.

Smart irrigation solutions

Water is the most valuable resource humanity has, which is why every drop is critical, especially around dry, arid, and remote areas.

In a trial partnership with Algeria’s mobile network operator Djezzy, Nokia has created what it calls a Worldwide IoT Network Grid (WING) to equip Algerian peach farmers with practical data to help them achieve better yields. Soil probes buried 120cm under an irrigation line collect and send back data about the soil that allow the farmer to track soil moisture, water patterns and salinity.

The readings are analyzed so the farmer can accurately manage irrigation cycles and soil nutrition. After one month, Nokia’s trial saw the farmer reduce water consumption by 40 percent on a single irrigation line for one hectare, and increase his revenues up to 5 percent per hectare. WING operates on all mobile networks, but such trials will only be improved with 5G.

Another application is the automation of irrigation. Soil sensors are measuring the amount of available water, and dendrometers are measuring the water stress of the plants. This technology has shown on several farms to reduce the amount of irrigation water by 30 percent.

The importance of public/private sector partnerships

It is very important to note that many of the examples stated were done using the cooperation, funding, and aid of governments worldwide, relying on the private sector alone to make such a detrimental shift will only agonizingly prolong the stages ahead.

Thus partnerships need to be formed to encourage the need for different sectors and players to work together to make 5G applications a reality.

This has been highlighted within several reports by the UNDP such as the case of the city of Cauayan in the Philippines, which showed how an agricultural town can become a smart city through leveraging 5G technology.

The city government has partnered with the largest telco in the Philippines to pioneer the use of a 5G network in the country. The government also vowed to train and develop farmers’ skills and knowledge through the Digital Farmers Program, so they are better equipped to use these technologies.

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Yehia is an investigative journalist and editor with extensive experience in the news industry as well as digital content creation across the board. He strives to bring the human element to his writing.

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Closing the gap in mobile connectivity

Yehia El Amine

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As you’re reading this, take a moment to think about your day. 

Have you joined friends or colleagues in a video conference call, did you scan various social media pages? Have you checked for any Black Friday deals to make an online purchase?

There is one denominator here: access to a high-speed and reliable Internet connection. 

Just as electricity became a modern necessity in the 1930s, high-speed Internet is a necessity today, and currently half the planet’s population is lacking access to any form of an Internet connection.

The problem was exacerbated by lockdowns imposed in response to the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.

More than 700 million people in rural areas around the world still cannot make phone calls or access the network, according to GSMA statistics. By the end of 2018, nearly 400,000 villages around the world had no network coverage. 

The digital divide between cities and the countryside is widening, especially the gap between remote and urban areas.

Closing or reducing the digital divide requires both coverage and penetration-related initiatives – especially in a world where demand has changed because of the pandemic.

Governments, telcos, and the private sector have taken note of this, and have already started to fight back against this connectivity blackout.

Last year, Indonesia completed the final phase of the Palapa Ring project. The goal was to bridge the geographical divide in digital services and provide high-speed internet across the country, with a focus on some of the country’s most remote regions, particularly those in the east.

The approach was to build a new national infrastructure as a backbone of Indonesia’s telecommunications system by connecting seven of the archipelago’s island groupings: Sumatra, Jawa, Kalimantan, Nusa Tenggara, Sulawesi, Maluku and Papua, through a public-private partnership.

According to a report by Opensignal, a UK-based Mobile Analytics company, Indonesia’s operators have been taking advantage of the Palapa Ring project to bring mobile connectivity beyond Jawa and to address the inequality in mobile network experience across the archipelago over the past two years.

“Our users saw outstanding improvements in all 12 regions over the last two years, between the third quarter of 2018 and the same quarter in 2020 for mobile Download Speed Experience, Video Experience, and 4G Availability,” a report published by Opensignal said. 

According to the report, the gap in mobile network experience between Jawa — Indonesia’s political, population and economic center— and the more remote islands has decreased significantly. In fact, the experience in remote islands has become even better than parts of Jawa in some cases.

“Our Indonesian users also experienced notable growth in 4G Availability — the proportion of time our 4G users spent connected to 4G services — across all regions. In the third quarter of 2018, most of the areas were below the 80 percent 4G Availability mark,” the report highlighted.

But two years later, almost all the regions have broken through or risen significantly closer to the 90 percent 4G availability milestone.

While this demand for connectivity is being slowly met, there is still a lot of work to be done; especially since this growing digital divide is driving economic and social inequity. 

In the US, students without broadband are falling behind in schools while counties with the highest unemployment rates also have the lowest broadband access and usage.

U.S. tech titan Microsoft has also stepped in to help bridge the gap by establishing the Airband Initiative. 

The initiative aims to close the digital divide and bring high-speed internet connectivity to unconnected communities around the world. 

It officially launched in 2017 with the goal of bringing broadband connectivity to 2 million people in the U.S. by July 2022. After early success, that goal grew to 3 million people in the US — and an additional 40 million across the globe — by the same deadline.

In the US the Airband Initiative has ongoing projects in 25 states and territories, with pilots in additional states, and has expanded broadband access to 1.5 million people in rural, previously unserved areas. 

The program has also expanded broadband access to more than 14 million people in rural areas internationally.

In Colombia, a small project in the country’s rural, mountainous Meta region has extended Internet access to coffee growers, helping preserve peace in a previously war-torn area. 

Zipping across to the South Pacific Ocean, the government of New Zealand have doubled down their efforts to bring fiber optic broadband to its rural areas. 

The first stage of the government’s Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI) brought faster internet connections to several rural hospitals and practices. For example, faster internet connection has improved data linkages between Hokianga Hospital and the central GP clinic in Rawene and nine remote primary health clinics.

Stage of the RBI rollout is still in progress. 

“The initiative seeks to provide high speed broadband to the greatest number of under-served rural end users within the funding available, and contribute towards achieving similar rates of access to high-speed broadband by rural end users across all regions of New Zealand,” a statement issued by the country’s Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment read. 

In Latin America, Telefónica/Movistar, Facebook, IDB Invest and the Development Bank of Latin America (CAF) joined forces to create a company called Internet Para Todos (Internet For All) or IpT.

After a year of the start of operations, IpT has successfully met the challenge of connecting more than 1.5 million Peruvians from remote locations along the coast, in the mountains and in the jungle, providing access to adequate mobile internet.

Peru became a pioneer in implementing IpT, and the experience has been progressively shared with other Latin American countries. The initiative aims to connect more than 30,000 rural communities by 2021.

IpT is an opportunity to integrate all Peruvians to the digital age, which is particularly vital in this context. There must be a coordinated effort between different sectors to connect about 4.5 million Peruvians before the Bicentennial with adequate mobile internet. 

This must be a joint task of the public and private sectors, in an effort to achieve more inclusive connectivity, thus fostering development in a society with equality for all.

As time presses on and the rollout of the fifth generation of mobile networks starts hitting the mainstream, connecting rural areas across the world will become much easier, which will allow for more initiatives to keep mushrooming as the world enters its next phase of technological development. 

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China Mobile dominates with largest 5G user base across the country

Yehia El Amine

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China Mobile dominates with largest 5G user base across the country

China continues to take giant leaps forward, as its largest telecoms operator, China Mobile, added a whopping 15.2 million 5G subscribers in October alone, according to a statement published by the telco.

The statement highlighted that it ended the month with a total of 128.8 million 5G subscribers, compared to 6.7 million at the beginning of the year.

China Mobile currently boasts the largest subscriber pool on the planet, as it recorded a total of 946.34 million overall subscribers, up by three million from the same time last year.

The telco has already constructed and setup almost 385,000 5G base stations across the country.

“Our growth has only been made possible by the support of all shareholders, customers and members of the general public, as well as the dedication and relentless efforts of China Mobile employees at all levels,” Yang Jie, Chairman of China Mobile, said in a statement.

Yang added that the company is ahead of schedule in its annual 5G rollout targets, as the telco cements its place as having the world’s largest 5G SA network.

In parallel, rivals China Telecom added 7.06 million subscribers this month, making their total 5G subscribers reach 71.86 million. It remains unknown if China Unicom is keeping up the race with its rivals, as the telco has yet to release their 5G numbers.

However, both China Unicom alongside China Telecom jointly build and operate over 300,000 5G base stations across the country.

China’s government earlier announced the installation of nearly 700,000 5G base stations to date, as it has successfully exceeded its initial target of 500,000.

This figure is already double the number of 5G base stations built outside China, according to the country’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT).

In addition, Chinese tech titan Huawei forecasts 5G users to represent 20 percent of total mobile users in both China and South Korea by the end of June 2021, President of Huawei’s Carrier Business Group, Ryan Ding, was quoted as saying during a presentation at a company forum.

China is currently leading the line in terms of 5G development and rollout, as it received a major boost from its government when its MIIT officially issued licenses for launching commercial 5G networks across the country.

The permits were granted to the country’s elite four, which are China Mobile, China Unicom, China Telecom and state-owned broadcaster China Broadcasting Network.

5G has already become the new norm within large cities such as the capital, Beijing, and Shenzhen with citizens enjoying full 5G coverage.

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The global fight to regulate 5G is happening right now

Yehia El Amine

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Almost everywhere you look, there’s a story about 5G and its impact on humanity from every conceivable aspect.

The fifth generation of mobile networks has dominated tech headlines far and wide, where every telco, tech news outlet, and private tech firm has flooded the Internet with 5G content as far as the finger can click.

No one is challenging the basis of these claims since they’re true.

Ubiquitous 5G coverage will proliferate new services and will be necessary to accommodate the growing Internet of Things (IoT), which provides constant broadband connections to a variety of new devices and applications.

From telcos and ISPs to startups and governments, retailers harnessing the power of machine learning, all business models and operations will be touched by a new era of ultrafast connectivity, and an explosion of devices.

Investors from all walks of life are looking at each and every opening to sync their teeth into a newly connected future that promises major returns, no matter the industry.

Because of that, 5G will not be a niche regulatory issue – all parts of the global economy and political landscape will be affected.

The 5G race is currently in its prime both domestically and internationally; which is why governments around the world are starting to take action to spur deployment while simultaneously looking at regulatory solutions to remedy privacy, security, and safety concerns.

Thus, the impact of regulating the fifth generation of mobile networks will cause a ripple affect shaping how we deal with the technologies of the future, as countries weigh the balance between the public and private sectors.

The UK has been fierce in its attempts to ensue safety on it’s 5G capabilities, and has introduced a new bill giving the government the power to leave out any vendor it deems as high-risk to it’s telecoms infrastructure.

High-risk vendors are being categorized as those who pose large security and resilience risks to UK telecoms. The telecoms security bill aims to forge national security powers to be able to control if a telecoms firm can use materials supplied by outside vendors.

Previous rallies against Huawei in the UK have increased in the past couple of months, with British premier Boris Johnson imposing a ban on the tech titan’s involvement in the country’s 5G infrastructure, while tasking local telcos to remove and replace current Huawei equipment from usage on a deadline set for 2027.

In parallel, a group of British lawmakers published a report citing 5G security concerns relating to Huawei’s collusion and close ties with China’s “Communist Party apparatus,” as they urged the PM to shorten the banning period.

In other words, the UK has publicly declared Huawei to be person non grata within their future plans.

The bill being studied in parliament also contains security protocols that would fine UK networks of 10 percent of turnover or £100,000 a day for those who do not meet the new standards.

The country’s communications regulatory body, Ofcom, is set to be tasked with monitoring and assessing security protocols among telecom providers.

“We are investing billions to roll-out 5G and gigabit broadband across the country but the benefits can only be realized if we have full confidence in the security and resilience of our networks,” Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden told reporters.

Dowden added that this bill will give the UK one of the toughest telecoms security regimes in the world and would allow for necessary action to protect their networks.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sports (DCMS) issued a statement saying that the current “self-governance laws in which telecoms providers were responsible for setting their own security standards, did not work.”

A statement echoed by the country’s Telecoms Supply Chain Review, considered that self-regulation offers little incentives to adopt the best security practices.

The 5G security concerns, which were ignited by the Trump administration’s trade spat with China, includes espionage, sabotage, and blackmail. The U.S. government considers Huawei as a security risk and has urged allies to shun its equipment over fears it could serve as a Trojan horse for Chinese intelligence services.

Ironically, while initial pressure to cut off Huawei and the likes have originated from the United states, there doesn’t seem to be serious talks or bills of regulating 5G networks across the Atlantic Ocean.

While U.S. Congress, from both sides of the aisle, have agreed on the importance of American 5G from a technological standpoint, the importance of protecting these networks from prying eyes and cyberattacks have barely scratched the surface.

There is no doubt that the United States is playing catch-up compared to its competitors such as China, but it’s also playing the same game with its allies.

At least 23 legislative items that specifically mention or address 5G—10 in the Senate and 13 in the House—have been introduced in the 116th Congress. Most are bipartisan and many are also bicameral, meaning the same text is supported by both Democrats and Republicans and has been introduced in both the House and the Senate.

But many have doubted the capability of the 116th Congress to be able to forge any response that will realistically change the course of US 5G deployment and security of its networks.

Experts forecast that 5G will remain a private-sector-led initiative in the US; especially since there doesn’t seem to be consensus on whether regulations will address sensitive issues such infrastructure installation, equipment to be used, pricing, security, or privacy.

In retrospect, a Biden presidency doesn’t exactly translate into a more lenient view of Huawei, regardless of the fact that the president-elect will be more consistent in his approach with the East Asian powerhouse.

However, not all of the U.S.’s rivals are technologically flourishing like China.

Russia, on the other hand, has imposed tight exposure limits for radio frequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMFs), which have been laid out by the country’s Digital Economy Program, which sees much more stringent standards than what’s internationally accepted.

This has pushed GSMA to publicly advise Russia to relax those measures, since these overly strict regulations will hinder the country’s 5G deployment, forcing it to fall behind other countries with regards to its digital transformation.

“While Russia’s standards reflect public concerns about the relative safety of mobile technologies, the GSMA stresses that the risk is extraordinarily low, and that studies have shown that using a mobile phone or living near a base station does not lead to any adverse health effects,” GSMA said in a statement.

The organization specifically cited the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, which published new international guidelines after analyzing 20 years of health research. Those guidelines are far more permissive than Russia’s, which the GSMA argues are not based on medical evidence.

“The updated international safety guidelines were adopted this year by Poland and Lithuania, among others,” GSMA VP and Europe, Russia and CIS Policy and Regulation Head Daniel Pataki, was quoted saying, adding that, “Russia has a critical opportunity to spur growth if leaders enact reforms now.”

Despite the potential hiccups, GSMA expects 5G to account for 20 percent of the mobile connections in Russia by 2025. The organization nevertheless believes that the country’s rules for the operation of radio facilities will slow the growth of the network, as will the country’s bureaucratic approval process for development projects.

Zipping back to the heart of the EU, Germany is currently battling to reach a consensus within the government that a telecoms vendor poses a national security threat in order to exclude its equipment from national 5G networks, according to draft legislation reviewed by Reuters.

The latest version of the IT Security Law follows months of wrangling in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition, which has been split over how to craft a political mechanism for judging whether a vendor can be trusted or not.

The consensus will prove vital for the future of China’s Huawei on German land, as the bill attempts to form a bridge between Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is for close trade relations with China, and her coalition partners in the Social Democratic Party (SPD) who, led by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, are hawkish towards Beijing.

As governments around the world attempt to set the stage for the next generation of mobile networks, the decisions made now, and in the near future, will most likely shape our interactions with the technological world as we know it.

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