John Deere invests $500k in private 5G licenses to support flexible factory networks

With FCC licenses it bought at auction, John Deere can move ahead now with 5G rather than wait 5-7 years for carriers to get around to providing it in rural areas.

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John Deere, the $35.5 billion maker of farm equipment, is planting the seeds of company-owned 5G cellular networking in some of its manufacturing plants after investing half-a-million dollars in wireless licenses at an FCC auction last year.

The company says that having a piece of wireless spectrum more or less to itself is key to updating certain of its production facilities. Deere bought citizens broadband radio service (CBRS) licenses in five Iowa and Illinois counties at that give it virtually unfettered use of the local CBRS bandwidth for private 5G.

More flexible than wired networks

Using campus-wide private 5G networks free of contention from other users, the company wants to dramatically reduce the number of wired connections needed to network its heavy production machinery. This gives the company more flexibility to make network changes vs wired networks, according to Dan Liebfried, director of automation and autonomy for the company’s intelligent-solutions group. It also can enable completely new use cases, he says.

The main idea is to let the company adapt its factory production lines more quickly and easily in response to changes in the products it makes than it could with wired networks. Over the course of a given year, Deere may have to do this multiple times, according to Liebfried, who said that 5G wireless networking could dramatically simplify reconfiguration by getting around a lot of manual work that would be required with one that is hardwired.

New applications

More than that, however, the company is looking toward new uses of CBRS even if they may be months away, Liebfried said. One of them is wirelessly connecting a smart vision system to support worker safety. It entails using cameras to track where workers are in relation to unsafe areas, which could lead to reconfiguring workstations so employees don’t have to assume unsafe work postures. That is mostly notional at this point, and Deere offered few details beyond that it’s exploring these possibilities and hopes to operationalize them “over the coming months,” according to Liebfried.

While it’s difficult to measure a precise ROI from potential 5G projects, he did say that the company has no doubts that private 5G a major step forward. “Our ability to flexibly reconfigure and change elements of our operation at a minute’s notice rather than having to run different ethernet or Wi-Fi drops—that’s sort of a tangible no-regrets move,” he said. “This a great opportunity to innovate inside our own manufacturing facilities.”

CBRS auctions

What Deere and the other bidders in the CBRS auction actually purchased is a new type of licensed spectrum. Each license covers 10MHz of spectrum in a single county, but, unlike most other licensed spectrum, the so-called priority-access license (PAL) merely gives the holder priority over unlicensed traffic in the area, not exclusive rights. So other users in the area can still use the spectrum without holding a license, but they’ll get bumped if the holder of a PAL needs it. So other users in the counties where Deere holds a PAL can use the same spectrum, but only if they don’t interfere with Deere’s traffic. The idea behind the scheme is to get the most value out of limited mid-band spectrum.

Craig Sutton, manager of technology innovation strategy at Deere, said that the availability of PALs was a critical consideration in the manufacturer’s plant-upgrade plans.

“The [PAL] allowed us to have a greater level of control” and ultimately priority access to the spectrum, he said. “As we continue to see increased utilization of wireless-data connectivity, which will be vital infrastructure, we need to have robust control of the network.”

Investment accelerates 5G availability

The company spent a total of $546,000 on the licenses for the five licenses in five counties where its manufacturing facilities are located–primarily around the Quad Cities (Rock Island, Davenport, Bettendorf, and Moline), in Iowa and Illinois–giving it priority access to a 10MHz CBRS channel in those areas.

Operating in partially rural areas may have helped keep the price for PALs low, but it also created the need for the company to buy them in the first place, said Liebfried.

“We didn’t want to wait until 5G naturally propagated to rural areas,” he said. “We figure we’re accelerating three, five or seven years of progress by participating in the auction rather than waiting for it to get out to us.”

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