Net Neutrality in the Age of Digital Farming

Is the Internet as a “pipeline” for data a public utility, or an entity that should be open for manipulation by Internet service providers (ISPs)? That’s the essential question surrounding the concept of “net neutrality” that is once again making the news.


The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) recently proposed rule changes to how data flows around the Internet. These rule changes address the ability of ISPs to selectively change the speed and availability of Internet traffic. Current rules, which support the concept of net neutrality, treat the Internet as a public utility or common carrier, meaning that all data on the Internet must be treated the same.

Net neutrality has three primary tenants: no blocking, no throttling, and no pay-for-priority. No blocking means that the ISP cannot prevent access to specific websites. Throttling and pay-for-priority, common practices for many ISP providers, has to do with Internet speeds. Throttling is slowing down access to specific sites or services, and pay-for-priority means that websites could pay the ISP to guarantee fast access to their content.

How would the Internet work in a post-net neutral system? Most of the examples being discussed address entertainment content, mainly because streaming video requires a lot of bandwidth. Netflix could be asked to pay a premium to ISPs to guarantee that customers using their service get priority. An ISP could limit customers to a specific amount of data from YouTube or ask them to pay additional fees if they exceed that limit.


These are good examples, but what about farmers and rural agribusinesses, who use the Internet for much more than entertainment?

Successfully implementing modern digital farming depends on access to the Internet. Data comes from multiple sources such as weather stations, soil maps, soil moisture sensors, telemetry from machines, etc., and this data passes through the data “pipeline” we call the Internet. The assumption has always been that the data would flow uninhibited as fast as the network would allow – but that assumption may not always be true.

Agriculture is very good at producing large amounts of data. For example, check out the recent world record that The Ohio State University set for a single corn plant. More and more applications are being developed for imagery, such as from UAVs, which require extensive bandwidth to upload and process. Researchers, OEMs, and trusted advisors are leveraging from collecting data to using that data effectively to make real-world management decisions.

Think of digital farming data as a raw resource. Data is like crude oil that needs to get to a refinery where it can be made into a value-added transportation fuel and then delivered to a place where it can be used. The Internet is the pipeline connecting all of the data sources to the farmer or trusted advisor where the data is distilled into actionable insights about their farming operations and then sent to their employees or equipment to put into practice. What happens if the farmer’s local ISP now dictates that only one image of their field can be uploaded or that your tractor manufacturer did not pay for priority so you can only get telemetry data that updates once every 30 minutes instead of every 30 seconds?

Modern agricultural equipment has benefitted from standardization: three-point hitches, PTO shafts, and hydraulic couplers, to name a few. The most recent standardization is the communications network that allows equipment and implements to communicate across brands. The industry as a whole is working to ensure that data from all different sources can be shared effectively and quickly.

Should it come to pass, the impact of eliminating net neutrality on digital farming has yet to be seen. But precision agriculture practitioners should be watching this space closely – this is not just an issue for gamers or entertainment consumers, but for those of us who believe that the Internet has made farming better.

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Avatar for Tom Quade Tom Quade says:

I’m just wondering if there was a federal PTO shaft commission that set the standards or perhaps a Federal 3 point hitch commission? “net neutrality” will be anything but ‘neutral’ once the feds decide who is given monopoly status and what servicices must be provided at what price. increased taxes will follow. I’m old enough to remember rotary dial phones of which there was often only one in the house because Ma Bell was granted monopoly status to provide ‘universal phone service’ without competition. Long distance was prohibitively expensive and inovation proceeded at a snail pace. All that changed slowly at first with the breakup of Ma Bell, but then rapidly when wireless telephony, largely free of federal regulation, completely upset the monopoly. Cellular then merged with wireless internet and our communications world has been revolutionized. Inovation and improved service are steady and now largely taken for granted by youngsters who don’t remember the old regulated communications world. The last administration tread carefully at first with net neut, understanding the need to keep the ‘we won’t let them throttle you’ message as the face of the effort and hide the inevitable command and control aspects as long as possible. Rest assured, if we had elected a like minded administration, the command and control would have followed quickly, as well as the taxes.
If you think net neutrality will be neutral, then you also thought the “affordable Care Act” would be affordable, that “if you liked your health plan you could keep your health plan” or your doctor if you liked him.
I’ll trust a free market to inovate to keep my business and serve my needs better than any federal bureacracy.