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Faster internet needed for German farmers

Arthur Sullivan
January 23, 2018

At the International Green Week trade fair in Berlin, German farming takes center stage. Like many industries, agriculture is grappling with digitalization, and as DW found out, it needs faster internet to cope.

Bringing faster internet to Saxony-Anhalt
Image: Getty Images/S. Gallup

The Kannenbrock and Wältermann pig farms, located in the rural Münsterland region of North Rhine-Westphalia, are situated just five kilometers apart.

Yet when it comes to the speed of their internet, five kilometers may as well be 500. When Mr Wältermann needs to go online, whether it's to check how many millimeters of rain fell overnight or to order a new technical aid for his tractor, his pages load at a healthy 12 megabits per second.

It's a different story for Mr Kannenbrock. "For me it's a problem," he told DW as he walked through the 'modern agriculture' exhibition at International Green Week, which is taking place from January 19-28 in Berlin. "We currently have a speed of less than one megabit per second. That's ice age stuff! The last time I checked, it took five minutes for a page to load."

Getting the megabit between its teeth

The 62-year-old is confirming what many Germans, especially those living in rural areas, already know — the internet is too slow.

Last week, Germany's Federal Network Agency (BNetzA) published a report which emphasized the country's online woes. Almost one third of Germans said their broadband speed was less than half that promised in their contracts, while less than 2 percent of smartphone users said their mobile data was up to speed.

That tallies with Germany's dismal global ranking. According to the most recent Akamai 'state of the internet' report (2017), Germany ranks 25th in Europe in terms of average connection speed. Far poorer European countries such as Bulgaria, Latvia and Romania outclass the continent's economic superpower when it comes to internet speed.

Around 90 percent of German households have access to broadband, but low-speed internet is very common, especially in the countryside. Farms are disproportionately affected by the sluggishness.

Ahead of this year's Green Week, Joachim Rukwied, President of the German Farmers' Association (DBV), which represents almost all the country's farmers, made it clear that the provision of faster internet in rural areas — particularly the building of nationwide gigabit networks over fiber, as well as 5G — needs to be a priority for the next German government.

Farmer wants a Wi-Fi connection

For several years now, farmers like Kannenbrock and Wältermann have needed good internet connections to help run their farming businesses. The use of smartphones has increased that need further for younger farmers such as Theis Witting, a 19-year-old dairy farmer from Oldenburg.

"These days you won't go very far without fast internet," he told DW. "I have an app for farmers on my mobile phone which tells me many things about the cows: if they are in heat, if they are near calving, basically everything I need to know for each individual cow. Then there's the various weather reports and related information. You need the internet for many things."

That need is only going to grow for farmers, according to the DBV's digitalization specialist Peter Pascher.

They are already less than satisfied with their internet provision he says, citing a 2017 DBV survey which shows that two thirds of German farmers feel their internet connections are either non-existent or too slow. But the growing impact that digitalization will have on agriculture is going to greatly increase the need for high-speed internet.

Read more: Germany in the digital slow lane

For starters, ever increasing regulation of agriculture will require more documentation from farmers, and increasingly, the expectation is that such documentation will be delivered digitally.

Then there's the so-called internet of things (IoT), the network of devices embedded with electronics, software, sensors and other kinds of technology that enable objects to send and receive data. That is going to have a profound effect on agriculture says Pascher.

In the near future he says sensor technology will be distributed all over farms, measuring the minutiae of plants, soil, animals and many things in between. Robotics are already in widespread use in modern agriculture — two of every three new milking machines are robotic, he says — while GPS units will shortly become an essential component for new farm vehicles.

Cow sitting out the winter
Image: picture alliance/blickwinkel

All of these things will require fast, high-tech internet to be available in Germany's most rural areas.

Low investment means low-speed internet

One of the main reasons for Germany's curiously slow internet is the lack of investment in the kind of infrastructure required for bigger bandwidth. Germany has the lowest overall infrastructure investment rate of the world's rich economies, and a gradual decline in investment over the last 15 years has coincided with the rise of internet technologies.

In 2016, the German government announced that it would invest €10 billion ($12.2 billion) in order to develop much faster internet connections across rural Germany by 2025. In the shorter-term, the plan is to have broadband connections across the entire country by the end of this year.

Ultimately though, a much greater level of investment, both public and private, will be needed to have high-speed, fiber-optic internet installed across Germany. The government itself estimated a figure of €100 billion two years ago and in March 2017 it was announced that a public-private consortium would invest this amount between now and 2025.

In response to questions from DW, the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) conceded that internet supply in many rural areas of Germany is "inadequate" but said that the federal government is "aiming for the nationwide expansion of high-performance networks and will continue to promote them over the next few years," highlighting the recent delivery of a €4 billion funding program for the specific expansion of rural broadband services.

German broadband lags behind

The time is now

For those like Klaus-Herbert Rolf, sales manager with 365 Farmnet, a digital farming support system owned by agricultural machinery manufacturer Claas, the time has come for action.

"Everyone agrees that 'digital is very important' — we hear that all the time," he told DW at Green Week. "But it's no longer enough to talk about it. It's time to build the infrastructure."

As for the Münsterland neighbors, Wältermann admits that at the moment his faster connection doesn't give him much advantage over Kannenbrock. But for the next generation, like Theis Witting, it will likely matter a lot more.

"You get used to slow internet," he says. "I have never known anything else in Oldenburg. But in the future, we will use the internet and our phones for almost everything. To stay competitive, it needs to be a lot faster."