GPS concerns for agriculture

By Matt Reese

There has been much discussion about the importance of improving rural broadband and cellular connectivity. As efforts to address this challenge move forward, new potential challenges are emerging.

“We know there are places where there is no cellular connectivity in Ohio making it very hard to get a connection to the Internet. The Internet has become a necessity for production agriculture today. Cellular services have advanced to 5G but that is limited to large cities and making that accessible to rural communities is very important,” said John Fulton, professor in the Ohio State University Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering. “The federal government has taken initiatives on the finding solutions to rural broadband coverage. One of the more debatable discussions currently is about the Ligado Company. Many people in the ag sector would recall LightSquared back in the 2011 era trying to deliver rural broadband via satellite. They went bankrupt and in 2015 re-emerged as Ligado. They are doing good work, but part of their solution is being able to use satellite technology to deliver rural broadband at a 5G level. That could come at the expense of interfering with existing GPS.”

This spring, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) gave Ligado permission to build and operate a land-based industrial 5G wireless network. Ligado will also have access to the “L-Band” spectrum, which is located near lower frequency bands used by millions of GPS units for a vast array of uses, including agriculture.

“The spectrum that Ligado is proposing to use is adjacent to the spectrum used for GPS. There really hasn’t been clear testing to understand what the impact could be, but in the preliminary testing it appears there could be some interference with the GPS signals. Therefore, all of these GPS receivers out there that have long been used or more recently been purchased could be impacted by such a technology,” Fulton said. “GPS has become very integrated into new farm machinery today and in other types of vehicles. We understand the need for a rural broadband solution, but I would like to see more open, transparent research to understand what the impact could be, whether it is Ligado or anyone else. If there is impact, how do we handle the existing GPS technology out there? If I am a farmer and this becomes available, and I have multiple machines with GPS on them, do I have to spend money to replace or upgrade all of those GPS receivers? I would guess there would be a pretty significant cost to upgrade to something new.”

A coalition set up to address these concerns is called Keep GPS Working. The founding members of the coalition are American Farm Bureau, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM), the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, and the Boat Owners Association of the United States. The coalition will continue to monitor the situation.

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