Despite good intentions, 5G might widen the gap between farmers

Mobile devices have revolutionized farming. When is it going to rain? Bring up an app. What are the grain prices? Bring up an app. Want to track your spraying? Bring up an app. While this technology has become an essential part of farming in first-world countries, those less fortunate could soon see the digital revolution pass them by, especially with the introduction of 5G.

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A new study out of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) has confirmed what many in farming are already experiencing: producers in 2nd and 3rd-world countries are seeing a widening gap open up between them and the more technologically-advanced.

Across many locations in sub-Saharan Africa, which has the potential to be a global breadbasket, fewer than 40% of farming households have internet access. Unlike Asia and Latin America where mobile phone ownership is nearly universal, fewer than 70% of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa have handheld devices. Access to 4G networks required to run more sophisticated apps is only nine percent.

“There’s an assumption that we’re going to be able to target everyone with these new technologies and everyone is going to be able to benefit,” said Zia Mehrabi, a scientist at the University of British Columbia who led the analysis published in Nature Sustainability, in a statement.

The study also showed major differences between farm size and mobile network services. Globally, 24-37% of farms under one hectare had access to 3G or 4G networks. Service availability is as high as 80% for farms over 200 hectares.

The researchers’ affordability analysis found that for many rural poor who do live in areas with coverage, getting connected could eat up the majority of their household budget.

“The study points to the need not only to expand coverage but vastly reduce the costs to make it affordable,” said Andy Jarvis, a co-author from the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, in a statement. “We need to consider digital connectedness as a basic need, and design next-generation innovations to work in every corner of Africa.”

There are plans in the works to keep the schism from opening to extreme proportions, however. Probably the most notable is Elon Musk and SpaceX’s Starlink. The service aims to provide high-speed Internet globally in a cost-effective manner by leveraging a constellation of several thousand satellites. It’s hailed by agricultural groups, but villified by astronomers, who say it will ruin the night sky for research.

“There’s a lot of 5G coming online. If access is not addressed at lower-end technologies, this is only going to aggravate the divide and create more inequality,” said Mehrabi.

The study included authors from the World Bank and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany.

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