TV white spaces enable Microsoft and Teagasc agritech alliance

29 Apr 2019

From left: Teagasc student Killian Faulkner; Cathriona Hallahan, Microsoft Ireland; Gerry Boyle, Teagasc; European commissioner Phil Hogan; and Teagasc student Noel Prunty. Image: Naoise Culhane

Microsoft Airband pilot initiative uses TV white spaces to address rural connectivity challenges.

An agricultural college in Cavan was the scene for the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between tech giant Microsoft and Irish agricultural research body Teagasc that will have rural connectivity at its core.

The plan is to use TV white spaces – redundant UHF and VHF spectrum that was used to broadcast older TV signals over long distances – as part of Microsoft’s global Airband initiative to provide broadband for business and residential use in rural areas.

‘This will be a game-changer for farmers and rural communities’

“It is critically important that Ireland, as a farming nation, ensures that the agricultural sector gets the benefit of technology to help inform future planning as well as day-to-day farm management,” said Microsoft Ireland managing director Cathriona Hallahan.

“The projects that we will work with Teagasc on will bring real impact to farmers and we believe they can be scaled rapidly. The Airband initiative, the first in Ireland, provides an innovative and cost-effective way to tackle the last mile of connectivity. This will be a game-changer for farmers and rural communities. The findings can be used to the benefit of other rural communities – not just in Ireland but across Europe.”

The digital future of agriculture

European commissioner for agricultural development, Phil Hogan, was present at the signing on Saturday (27 April), which will see the two bodies work together to develop agriculture-based technology that will advance Irish agriculture in support of rural development and innovation.

The first initiative to be rolled out under the MoU is a pilot project that will provide remote internet connectivity to Teagasc Agricultural College in Ballyhaise and potentially some surrounding households.

It will allow students at the college to access internet-based digital technology while training and working remotely in the fields and outbuildings across the 220-hectare campus.

Connectivity means students can leverage a range of technologies, including AI and data analytics, to help inform decision-making while learning. The other projects identified in the MoU will be rolled out over the summer and will focus on precision agriculture, big data and AI.

The pilot is part of Microsoft’s Airband global initiative, which aims to extend connectivity to underserved rural communities around the world by working with partners and leveraging innovative technologies. These include wireless solutions using TV white space, which penetrates natural and manmade obstacles, and is abundant in rural areas.

There are currently 68 Airband projects globally. In the US alone, Microsoft has committed to bringing 3m rural Americans online by 2022.

Internet service provider Net1 will work alongside Teagasc and Microsoft, providing the connectivity and managing the installation and deployment of the pilot.

The pilot project in Ballyhaise Agricultural College is understood to be the first of its kind in Ireland. It will inform how a similar solution can be deployed in other rural or agricultural settings across the country and beyond. The pilot will commence in the coming weeks and will run for up to eight months.

“Using this technology will allow Teagasc to have high-speed broadband across all our farm land in Ballyhaise,” said Prof Gerry Boyle, Teagasc director. “Sustainable land management underpins Teagasc courses, and our teaching approach is a blend of classroom and practical learning. This project will allow us to bring technology that has previously been restricted to the classroom directly to the field.

“An example is the measurement of grass and its optimum utilisation. As students are taught the skills of measuring and managing grass, this information that’s stored on the cloud can be captured on a handheld device in the field, allowing immediate management decisions to be made on how much grass to give to animals. We are also delighted to be partnering with Microsoft on a range of other digital projects that will enable Ireland’s food sector to continue to grow in a manner that meets the highest standards of sustainability.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years