The demand for food is increasing alongside a growing population. Digital farming and smart ag technologies — autonomous equipment, sensors, artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics — will play a large role in the future of sustainable agricultural production. However, smart ag technologies are reliant on connectivity.

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Understanding & Measuring ‘Mobile Network Connectivity’ for Smart Farming

Written by Ravneet Singh, Senior Technology Specialist & Instructor, Werklund School of Agriculture Technology, Olds College - March 2022

Data and connectivity are at the heart of the agriculture sector.

The demand for food is increasing alongside a growing population. Digital farming and smart ag technologies — autonomous equipment, sensors, artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics — will play a large role in the future of sustainable agricultural production. However, smart ag technologies are reliant on connectivity. 

On the Olds College Smart Farm — a 3,600 acre farm of the future and cutting-edge learning environment — the Olds College Center for Innovation (OCCI) evaluates smart ag technologies in order to unlock the potential for farmers to make data-driven management decisions on their fields. Smart farming has the potential to use digital technologies for increasing efficiency of farming operations.

Olds College created Understanding & Measuring ‘Mobile Network Connectivity’ for Smart Farming for producers to explain the basics and evolution of cellular connectivity, and ways to measure signal strength. This will help producers better integrate, manage, and leverage ag technology for the enhancement and sustainability of agri-food production on their farms.

Background: Evolution of Mobile Networks

Cellular devices are only going to become more important and prevalent in our lives with continuous developing technology — and networks are rapidly evolving to make the most of the new technology.

Evolution of Mobile Networks

Cellular network evolution timeline.

First Generation (1G)

First generation networks — now known as 1G — emerged in the early 1980s and only allowed voice calls to be made, suffered from reliability and signal interference issues, and had limited protection against hackers2 .

Based on an analogue technology known as Advanced Mobile Phone System (AMPS), which used Frequency Division Multiple Access (FDMA) modulation, 1G networks offered a channel capacity of 30KHz and a speed of 2.4 kilobits per second (kbps).  

Second Generation (2G)

2G networks were introduced in the early 1990s, and allowed users to send Short Messaging Service (SMS) or text services and Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS) messages or media added to text services. They were based on digital signaling technology, Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM), which increased security and capacity.

2G networks offered bandwidths of 30KHz to 200KHz and speeds up to 64kbps. Continuous improvement of GSM technology led to the introduction of the 2.5G which enabled data-rates up to 144kbps, and the ability to send and receive email messages and browse the web.

Third Generation (3G)

In the year 2000, mobile phones became more about social connectivity and less about voice calls. With its ability to transmit greater amounts of data at higher speeds, 3G enabled users to make video calls, surf the web, share files, play online games and even watch TV online.

Based on GSM, 3G networks supported high-speed data and data-rates up to 14 megabits per second (Mbps). Whereas 2G networks would enable a 3-minute MP3 song to be downloaded in around 6 to 9 minutes, the same file would take anywhere between 11 to 90 seconds to download on a 3G network. Today the most common use for 3G networks is as a backup for 4G.

Fourth Generation (4G) / Long-Term Evolution (LTE)

The introduction of 4G ushered in the era of the smartphone and hand-held mobile device. 4G was the first generation to use Long-Term Evolution (LTE) technology — which is displayed as LTE, LTE+ or LTE4G on devices. 4G/LTE has download speeds of 10Mbps to 1gigabits per second (Gbps) which equates to 1 billion bits of data per second, offering less buffering, improved voice quality, instant messaging services and social media, quality streaming, and faster download speeds.

4G/LTE is also the first IP-based mobile network which handles voice as just another service. The technology is being developed to accommodate the Quality of Service (QoS) and rate requirements required by applications such as wireless broadband access, MMS, video chat, mobile TV, HDTV content, Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB).

However, 4G networks soon began struggling with the heightened global demand for mobile bandwidth, higher speeds and faster networks due to emerging technologies — Augmented Reality (AR), autonomous vehicles and the exponential growth of the Internet of Things (IoT) — combined with the growing number of devices around the world.

In 2015, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) realized 4G/LTE networks will ultimately reach capacity and defined requirements specification for 5G.

Telus 4G LTE3 Coverage Map. Coverage areas are approximate; actual coverage, network services and technology can vary and are subject to change

Telus 4G LTE3 Coverage Map. Coverage areas are approximate; actual coverage, network services and technology can vary and are subject to change. Source: TELUS.

Fifth Generation (5G)

5G networks can operate starting at 1 gigabit per second and can run up to 1,000 times faster than 4G.

TELUS 5G Network Comes to Olds College Smart Farm and Community

Telus 5G Coverage Map

Telus 5G Coverage Map

Coverage areas are approximate; actual coverage, network services and technology can vary and are subject to change. Source: TELUS.

Cellular Network Sunsets (aka Network Phase Outs)

As cellular networks prepare to roll out 5G, they are continuing to shut down older systems.

Even though 2G was a revolutionary technology, it started getting phased out around the world in 2008 due to low bandwidth applications and customer demands — and 3G networks are next on the list. 

Read

The 3G sunset (sunsetting means phasing out of an old network, in this case the 2G and 3G networks) will allow network operators to create space in the radio spectrum for newer, faster technology. Coming on the heels of the 2G sunset, the transition is creating challenges for technologies that depend on older systems — to date, 2G and 3G are still the most commonly used technologies for Internet of Things (IoT) deployments.

It’s important to remember that while carriers do not guarantee 3G service after a certain date, your devices will probably not lose connectivity right away. The situation is more like highway maintenance — when a government stops maintaining a road, it doesn’t fall apart immediately. But over time, it will deteriorate and become unusable.

There’s not a single cutoff date for 3G technology. Carriers around the world have different strategies for updating their infrastructure. Some have already retired both 2G and 3G, while others are holding onto one or both for the foreseeable future. It’s important to know which carrier network your devices use so you can adequately prepare. 

Upcoming 3G sunsets in Canada:

Bell on 12/31/2025Telus on 12/31/2025Rogers on 12/31/2025

Testing Existing Cellular Networks for Smart Farms

Certain areas in rural Alberta are more remote and struggle with basic network and cell phone coverage. 

The Olds College Smart Farm experiences connectivity issues in certain locations across its 3,600 acre commercial farm. In addition to commercial farming operations, researchers, instructors and students at Olds College use the Smart Farm for living lab experience and hands-on learning. However, connectivity issues prevent the full use of smart ag technology, full scale implementation of applied research projects, and the effective use of devices, sensors, and autonomous farming equipment.

On the Olds College Smart Farm, applied research and Smart Ag technology rely heavily on cellular connectivity. It is essential Smart Ag technology and equipment functions properly in order for the research team to perform their testing, evaluations and analysis.

Cellular coverage available to the equipment must meet certain criteria such as:

  • Cellular Signal Strength
  • Uplink Speed
  • Downlink Speed

Over the last year, Olds College researchers came across a few instances where certain technologies failed due to performance issues or errors that couldn’t be traced back to on-board functionality, therefore, bad cellular connectivity was listed as the resulting factor. 

These connectivity issues warranted further investigation in order for the Smart Farm to continue providing a product development and demonstration venue to accelerate agriculture technology and agri-food development.

The Raven OMNiPOWER platform uses mobile phone connectivity, presently 3G or LTE-A (Advanced), to operate autonomously in the field.

The Pessl Metos IMT3.3 uses cellular LTE connectivity to report precipitation, relative humidity, leaf wetness, solar radiation, air temperature, soil moisture, soil temperature, and soil volumetric ionic content to the FieldClimate Platform.

The ChrysaLabs Soil Nutrient Probe (not commercially available) uses cellular connectivity to measure and report real-time measurements of N, K, P, pH, moisture, OMG, CEC and minor nutrients.

RealmFive Weather Front uses cellular connectivity to transfer data readings from temperature, humidity, wind speed/direct, precipitation, and air pressure to the RealmFive View platform.

TeleSense Spider uses cellular connectivity to communicate grain bin readings such as grain temperature, grain moisture and carbon dioxide monitoring to the Telesense platform.

User Acceptance Testing (UAT) Criteria

To test for connectivity issues, Olds College created the below list of criteria for User Acceptance Testing on the Olds College Smart Farm. This criteria can be useful for all producers who require connectivity on their farms.

Network Downlink Speed

Measured in Mbps, download speed experience represents the typical everyday speeds a user or device experiences across an operator’s mobile data networks when transferring data from a network onto a users device. 

There are 3 main supporting metrics related to download speed:

  • 3G Download Speed: The average downlink speed across an operator’s 3G connections (e.g. UMTS/HSPA or CDMA 1X EV-DO).

  • 4G Download Speed: The average downlink speed across an operator’s 4G/LTE connections.

  • 5G Download Speed: The average download speed for each operator on an active 5G connection.

Network Uplink Speed

Also measured in Mbps, this is defined as the average upload speeds observed for each operator or device across the mobile data networks when transferring data from a user's device to a network. Typically upload speeds are slower than download speeds, as current mobile broadband technologies focus resources on providing the best possible download speed for users consuming content on their devices. 

There are three main supporting metrics that relate to uplink speed:

  • 3G Upload Speed: The average uplink speed across an operator’s 3G connections (e.g. UMTS/HSPA or CDMA 1X EV-DO).

  • 4G Upload Speed: The average uplink speed across an operator’s 4G/LTE connections.

  • 5G Upload Speed: The average upload speed for each operator on an active 5G connection as experienced by users.

Network Latency

Latency refers to the delay experienced by users/devices as data makes a round trip through the network. If the latency of a network is high, the network will feel less responsive and be slower to react to your requests. Latency is measured in milliseconds, and it represents the typical delay a user experiences when connecting across an operator’s networks. 

Latency has two supporting metrics:

  • 4G Latency: The average latency users experience across an operator’s 4G/LTE connections.

  • 3G Latency: The average latency users experience across an operator’s 3G connections (e.g. UMTS/HSPA or CDMA 1X EV-DO.

Signal Strength (dBm)

Signal strength is yet another important parameter in measuring cellular reception. The units for cellular signal strength are dBm (Decibel Milliwatt). Some cell phones will use another unit to measure the cellular signal strength called ASU (Arbitrary Strength Unit) which is an integer value proportional to the received signal strength measured by the mobile phone.

Users can try this on their cell phones to see the cell signal strength. 

  • On your Android Cellphone, click Settings > About Phone > Status > Sim Status.

  • On your iPhone, Dial *3001#12345#*  and a similar screen will appear that tells you the cell signal strength.

Newer LTE Standards Focused on IoT

With more connected devices being developed every day, the traditional ‘cellular standards’ are not enough — especially since some of these devices have different types of connectivity requirements. For example, soil sensors transfer a few bytes of data everyday, but need a very low power consumption to run for a long time on the same set of batteries. Connected vehicles, like OMNiPOWER, stream a lot of data back to the cloud, but yet they are never going to make a voice call, so it needs a slightly different type of connectivity.

These connected devices give rise to the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT demands are unique and case dependent, and have led the industry to develop several categories within the LTE Standard which continue to evolve. Below are a few examples of these categories and there are more LTE categories listed here.

LTE Cat-1

Although not as well-known, Cat-1 is flexible which means it’s able to support both low-power connections as well as high bandwidth needs depending on the use case. And since it can handle voice and mobile IoT applications, Cat-1 is a viable choice for asset tracking, remote sensors, wearables, and micro-mobility rentals. While it does consume more power and has a slightly shorter signal than NB-IoT and Cat M-1, it is currently more widely supported by carriers around the world, making it a better option for global IoT deployments.

LTE Cat-M1 or LTE-M

Designed as a low-power connectivity option for IoT deployments, Cat-M1 promises an average of 10 years of service on a 5WH battery. It operates on a 1.4 MHz spectrum and allows upload speeds of 200–400 kpbs. Cat-M1 hardware boards are much less expensive than other options and provide excellent coverage — and the technology is compatible with existing cellular data services making it a future-proof choice. One disadvantage of Cat-M1 is that carriers haven’t fully standardized international roaming, making things tricky if your devices are deployed overseas.

NB-IoT (Cat-M2) or Cat-NB1

Similar to Cat-M1, NB-IoT uses direct-sequence spread spectrum (DSSS) modulation rather than LTE radios, resulting in a greater initial cost for operators wishing to deploy with this standard. NB-IoT sends data directly to the server, eliminating the need for a gateway — and resulting in some cost savings. Like Cat-M1, the international roaming situation with Cat-M2 is still in flux, so it might not be the best choice for a global IoT deployment at this point.

Cat-4

This standard reaches 50Mbps upload and 150Mbps download theoretical speeds, which are essentially the same speeds consumers get on their smartphones. Cat-4 is popular among IoT deployments, but it consumes more power and is more complex than Cat-1.

Source: Global Website Files.

Conclusion

Hopefully this content gave you an understanding about the basics and evolution of cellular connectivity and ways to measure signal strength. Longer-term, the College is hoping to evolve this content to ensure it contains up-to-date and relevant information to help farmers (and others) troubleshoot wireless devices and connectivity.

Please email us at OCCI@oldscollege.ca if you have any questions about this article on mobile network connectivity. 


References:

  1. https://itchronicles.com/mobile/cellular-network-types/

  2. https://www.avnet.com/wps/portal/abacus/resources/article/the-evolution-of-cellular-networks/

  3. https://www.telus.com/en/bc/mobility/network/coverage-map

  4. https://support.bell.ca/mobility/network_coverage/what_are_bell_mobilitys_network_types_and_how_are_they_used#step1

  5. https://www.opensignal.com/2021/05/26/understanding-mobile-network-experience-what-do-opensignals-metrics-mean

  6. https://www.hologram.io/blog/3g-sunset-att-rogers-telstra-vodafone-orange-iot

  7. https://www.hologram.io/blog/how-to-understand-the-different-lte-iot-device-categories