Improving agriculture, improving lives

5G SA Agriculture Field Lab

In December 2019 I proudly proclaimed that “developers will lead 5G innovation”. Hyperbole you may have thought, and it is fine if you did. After all, what exactly is the developer play? At the Lab we firmly believe 5G is more than fast connectivity. It is a platform of reaching new devices on the far edge (connectivity ­and edge computing) creating massive amounts of data (real time data and artificial intelligence) that intelligent machines will process and make sense of. Bring these elements together and it is easy to see how a 5G enabled platform can take shape for developers to build future apps and infrastructure.

There are unique enterprise signals I have been watching from spectrum purchasing, the developing relevance of private cellular networks, and an upturn of venture investment into 5G startups. Signals such as these shape a speculative narrative but is it enough to forecast the future? As Alan Kay once said, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it”. Well, what if there was an industrial testbed that is a production site not just a mockup? What if these testbeds became a place where we moved past theory and put innovation, platforms, and industry to work understanding problems, experimenting with technology to solve those problems, and maybe even invent something new? This, my friends, takes the guess work out of predicting the future and puts us on a path to creating it. Innovation in production with real customers built on platforms that scale.

Early this week we announced our first Agriculture (Ag) Field Labs in partnership with Snohomish County and locally based growers Nate Krause of Swans Trail Farms and Andrew Albert of Andrews Hay powered by 5G OI Lab Partners. The project was a whirlwind effort and worth every crazy twist and turn we encountered. The 5G OI Lab community has taken an important step forward moving past theory into implementing the future, with customers in production, backed by the world’s leading platforms. We are positioned well to understand real industry challenges, experiment with them, and verify commercially viable Ag use cases. No more guess work, no more what ifs. Instead, we are now experimenting our way to real outcomes and certainly contributing to a future of success for Snohomish County growers, our companies, and Partners.

Before we geek out on Field Labs, lets first get grounded on the problems at hand. The Ag industry will forever be an important part of our lives. Bernard Mannes Baruch was quoted once saying, “Agriculture is the greatest and fundamentally the most important of our industries. The cities are but the branches of the tree of national life, the roots of which go deeply into the land. We all flourish or decline with the farmer.” COVID-19 has negatively impacted the resiliency of the industry. Growers struggle with labor shortages, lock downs slowed customer demand, and mounting costs meant many would feel the impact long past restrictions were lifted. In fact, many industries have been dealing with similar consequences brought on by COVID-19. Our friends at Avanade published a recent blog on new manufacturing approaches used to recover from the pandemic, and more importantly, to build technology based resiliency to lessen future disruptions. Growers are no different but many lack highspeed connectivity and therefore usable access to cloud-based applications. According to a UDSA Farm Computer Usage & Ownership report from 2019, a combined 48% of farms across the United States have internet service provided through both DSL or satellite. Of the roughly 2 million operating farms approximately 970,000 are accessing the internet well below what is considered broadband capable speeds of ~25Mps. Microsoft’s Airband initiative uncovered as many of 157 million Americans are not getting access to broadband capable speeds in a report they published in March 2020. As a reminder, this speaks to internet connectivity to homes at farms, not connectivity covering farming operations where significant commercial benefits can be realized.

As important as the Ag industry is to our sustenance, the lack of connectivity is hindering the Ag’s industry adoption of modern technology for efficiently producing food. Moreover, the lack of access combined with a decrease in farmable land means growers such as Swans Trail and Andrews Hay must find ways to do more with much less. It is hard to accomplish more when you are flying blind. Short term we plan on collecting important data to help growers fly less blind. With data in hand, they can better understand irrigation needs, the right levels of chemical usage, where disease is threatening their crops, and track important metrics that help them ensure productive and efficient yields. Long term we are excited about what is possible using the Field Labs to deploy current and future 5G OI Lab companies’ technology aligned to the challenges these growers face daily. Commercially successful use cases are the pursuit but so to is learning from failed experiments. Increasing technology adoption will shape Ag jobs of the future assisting growers, Snohomish County, and our partners at Washington State University to develop future skills-based curriculum as well.

Now, lets have a peak at what’s under the hood at the Field Labs:

1. SA 5G: Each location has its own dedicated standalone (SA) 5G network paired to a dedicated edge computing node. We are using a mix of CBRS and licensed spectrum offered through T-Mobile. T-Mobile was instrumental to our spectrum strategy and back-haul for both sites.

2. RAN: We have deployed Nokia for our radio access network (RAN) at both locations. Stay tuned for an announcement shortly on mmWave Open RAN (ORAN) gear we intend to deploy also leveraging Intel’s FlexRan open source platform.

3. EPC: Each site has its own dedicated evolve packet core (EPC). For Swans Trail we have deployed Expeto (a company from our first Batch) and Metaswtich EPC from Microsoft at Andrews Hay.

4. Infrastructure: Our entire environment is running on Dell servers using Intel Xeon processers paired with Intel’s SmartEdge capabilities.

5. App platform: VMware’s Telco Cloud is our platform for deploying, orchestrating, and connecting applications from the cloud to these locations. Our companies can burst their cloud based applications on site using the dedicated edge nodes for processing data. Process locally, store globally.

6. App and network security: We have secured both Field Labs using F5 Networks Application Security solutions.

7. Automated service and network orchestration: Thanks to support from Amdocs we plan to fully automate, orchestrate, and meter application deployments across sites using their platform. We are metering application usage from the edge to create a bill. Think shifting ARPU to cloud consumption in an effort to explore new business models.

8. IoT and data: Our very own Innov8.ag is deploying their smart orchard platform paired to an array of IoT sensors to automate the collection, and processing, of data. Expect much more from all 5G OI Lab companies in the months to come.

Getting us from vision to reality was only possible because of our partners at Ballast Networks and Expeto. There is no amount of gratitude we can share for the pioneering work they did to deliver this project in less than 2 months while meeting a high-quality bar. They were instrumental to planning, zoning, building, and now are operating the Field Labs. Their tireless support of the project made it the success we enjoy today.

The collaboration involved with these Field Labs could be a first globally. It is a unique mix of enterprise and cloud grade capabilities familiar to application builders (5G OI Lab companies) and digitally transforming enterprises. It is also future proofing the platform to keep pace with the dynamic changes we anticipate in private 5G networking, public to edge computing, and the increasing dependance on machine learning, and artificial intelligence. Furthermore, these Field Labs will become a backbone for industry leading research we are excited to partner with Washington State University on. Their research efforts will lead the way forward to helping growers efficiently, and sustainably, produce food through their deep research efforts.

The Field Labs announced earlier this week and other industrial sites we have in mind, are a cornerstone for innovative collaboration. Beyond bringing much needed connectivity to bear, they are platforms for experimenting with technology to solve industrial problems and verify commercially sound use cases. I am excited for what these partnerships have made possible and, more importantly, for what we will learn. We are also excited to help growers from Swans Trail and Andrews Hay with access to connectivity that spans their land and the digital tools they can use to fly less blind. Nate and Andrew represent the thousands of smart and capable growers across the United States who lack important access to connectivity and smart platforms.

Our ambition at the Lab has always been to build a developer ecosystem that explores, experiments, and harnesses what is to come with 5G connectivity, computing on the edge, and AI. We have assembled the world’s best partnerships, brought in innovated companies, and now have established commercially operating Field Labs that puts theory into practice. This week we celebrated the launch of our Ag Field Lab, in the coming months our ambitions will likely take us on a new adventure into other industries.

Partnerships bring together silos of talent, perspectives, and capabilities. During my 13+ years at Microsoft I truly appreciated the massive impact only possible through vibrant partner-based ecosystems. Everything we announced this week, and what we have accomplished at the Lab, is possible because of our Partners. Together we are chipping away at taking the guess work out of predicting the future and, as Alan Kay once said, creating it.

Head of 5G Open Innovation Lab & ecosystem builder