This industry viewpoint was authored by Michael C. Morey, President and Chief Executive Officer, Bluebird Network
The growing importance of bringing high-speed connectivity to rural markets and beyond
Tier 1 markets have come to rely on high-speed connectivity built upon fiber to remain competitive. Those high-speed connections have become commonplace in major cities, critical industries, and financial markets, creating an opportunity for tier 1 businesses to leverage fiber to build high-speed pipelines to the internet. Yet, the benefits that fiber can bring reach beyond those tier 1 markets, and have the potential to transform underserved, rural communities and small towns plagued by limited connectivity and aging technologies, which are very evident in the agriculture community.
The Fiber-to-the-Farm Conundrum
Rural areas house important industries, such as agriculture. Rural businesses are quickly adopting technologies that make farm-to-market a reality, which in turn means those industries must have access to the physical infrastructure required to support business processes. Simply put, those industries have become increasingly reliant on data collection and processing to increase productivity and reduce losses. Case in point is the adoption of industrial Internet of Things (IoT) devices, which can generate massive amounts of data in real time and require high-speed connectivity to process that data and generate the most relevant results.
Examples of industrial IoT in agriculture include devices for irrigation, feed, fertilizer management, inventory control, and supply line management — all of which require reliable, high-speed connectivity provided by fiber-to-the-farm in order to function properly. While service providers recognize a growing need for connectivity in these markets, fiber deployments in rural geographies are often fraught with practicality concerns and cost challenges, and are thus limited in nature. This challenge has forced service providers to seek alternatives to physical fiber runs to rural areas.
The Promise of Virtual Fiber
Technologies such as 5G, the fifth generation of cellular mobile communications, are capable of delivering high-speed connectivity to even the most remote areas without the physical barriers that hinder the availability of fiber. 5G promises to bring speeds as high as 20 Gbps with latency of just 1ms, making it a viable alternative to fiber. Yet, 5G may be several years off for many rural areas.
What’s more, 5G is not yet a simple plug-and-play technology. 5G wireless services will still require significant fiber deployment and carriers will still need to establish 5G networks, bringing fiber to 5G transceivers to service rural areas. However, the need to run costly fiber that last mile directly to the customer can be eliminated.
Thanks to alternative technologies, service providers can eliminate the high cost of bringing fiber to the farm (or other agricultural or rural entities), but still provide “fiber-like” high speed and low latency, creating a virtual fiber-to-the-farm infrastructure to support agricultural and rural connectivity needs.
What is Virtual Fiber-to-the-Farm?
Virtual fiber-to-the-farm enables network service providers to deploy fiber in strategic positions closer to rural areas, delivering the necessary backhaul connectivity for wireless technology enablement and small cell deployment throughout agricultural communities. By virtualizing the connectivity process, providers are able to bring greater bandwidth and capacity to farmers throughout rural communities in a way that is simple and cost-effective, while mitigating the financial strain of extensive backhaul networks deployed across a widespread geographic area.
While virtual fiber-to-the-farm is a promising alternative for rural areas in need of high bandwidth and data services, virtualization is not an overnight process. It is possible for fiber providers to build fiber to rural areas, however local users looking to use that fiber must have a wireless distribution avenue available. Virtual fiber-to-the-farm is the best option available for many rural institutions; however, the process of building out these wireless distribution avenues will take time to properly develop.
Virtual fiber-to-the-farm has the potential to address the connectivity challenges faced by rural customers as well as the broader agricultural industry. By enabling service providers to deploy additional network and/or wireless infrastructures throughout rural areas, virtual fiber-to-the-farm offers today’s farmers an opportunity to support bandwidth-intensive applications utilized in their various agricultural operations, as well as the ability to remain competitive.