Signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between Teagasc and Microsoft, are: Professor Gerry Boyle (CEO Teagasc), Cathriona Hallahan (MD Microsoft Ireland) and Phil Hogan (European Commissioner. PHOTO: ALEX COLEMAN

Ballyhaise to tune into TV white space for broadband

Can unassigned TV channels be used to deliver rural broadband across Ireland and beyond? 
That’s the innovate project that Microsoft and Teagasc have signed up to explore. The managing director of the software giant’s Irish company Cathriona Hallahan described the technology as “a game changer for farmers and rural Ireland” when she arrived at Ballyhaise Agricultural College last Saturday to sign the memorandum of understanding between Teagasc and Microsoft.
European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Phil Hogan, was on hand to formally launch the Airband pilot initiative.
The pilot will enable students to access internet-based digital technology while training and working remotely in the fields and outbuildings across the 220-hectare campus. Potentially some surrounding households or premises in Ballyghaise could benefit under the pilot, but Ms Hallahan believes the technology can be “scaled rapidly”.
The projects identified in the MoU will be rolled out over the summer, and will run for up to eight months. It will focus on precision agriculture, big data, and Artificial Insemination (AI).


White space
It forms part of Microsoft’s Airband Global Initiative, which aims to extend connectivity to under-served, rural communities around the world by employing new technologies, such as wireless solutions using TV White Spaces. TV White Space is an unassigned broadcast spectrum, which travels over long distances, penetrates natural and man-made obstacles, and is abundant in rural areas. 
There are currently 68 Airband projects globally. In the US alone, Microsoft has committed to bringing three million rural Americans online by 2022.
This Airband project is being rolled out with a trial licence from ComReg. There is an abundance of unused TV White Space in Ireland, all of which can be used for the roll out of similar solutions nationwide.
Net1 will work alongside Teagasc and Microsoft providing the ISP connectivity and managing the installation and deployment of the pilot. The pilot project in Ballyhaise Agricultural College will inform how a similar solution can be deployed in other rural or agricultural settings across the country and beyond. 
At the launch, Commissioner Hogan commended all involved in the scheme. “From 2020 onwards I want and expect to see an upsurge in Smart Village projects, where local initiative is supported by EU funding through programmes such as the Rural Development Programme (RDP) or Leader, along with partners from the private sector such as Microsoft, who can bring innovative solutions like Airband to the table.”
He said there was a “huge urban/rural gap in connectivity and related infrastructure”.
Only four in 10 rural homes in the EU have access to fast broadband. By contrast, 75% of urban areas have high-speed access.
“To close the urban/rural gap we have to deliver better connectivity. It’s that simple. This is a real obstacle for the development of new businesses, new jobs, prosperity and better services in rural areas,” said Commissioner Hogan.
Minister Heather Humphreys (FG) was also present for the launch and described the project as “exciting”, adding that it would benefit many students.


Grass management
Professor Gerry Boyle, Teagasc director said: “Using this technology will allow Teagasc to have high speed broadband across all our farm land in Ballyhaise. 
“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.”

Critically important
Cathriona Hallahan, managing director of Microsoft Ireland, said: “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.
 “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.”