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Camarillo company connects with FCC for rural internet

Camarillo company connects with FCC for rural internet

GeoLinks wins contract to hook up parts of California and Nevada

PLUGGED IN—Skyler Ditchfield, CEO of Camarillo-based internet provider GeoLinks, is passionate about bringing high-speed access to residents in rural areas of California and Nevada. “The whole mission is closing the digital divide, providing more opportunities for schooling, operating online businesses, research, etc.,” he said. Acornfile photo

PLUGGED IN—Skyler Ditchfield, CEO of Camarillo-based internet provider GeoLinks, is passionate about bringing high-speed access to residents in rural areas of California and Nevada. “The whole mission is closing the digital divide, providing more opportunities for schooling, operating online businesses, research, etc.,” he said. Acornfile photo

Camarillo-based GeoLinks is expanding into the residential internet market after it won a multimillion-dollar contract from the Federal Communications Commission to help bring high-speed internet to rural areas in California and Nevada.

GeoLinks, a company that uses radio waves instead of cables and wires to provide fixed wireless internet connections, primarily services businesses and institutions such as schools and libraries.

But last month, the Federal Communications Commission announced GeoLinks will receive nearly $88 million as part of the second phase of the FCC’s Connect America Fund, which will give out nearly $1.5 billion over the next 10 years to help underserved Americans get online and close the “digital divide” between those with high-speed internet access and those without.

Skyler Ditchfield, GeoLink’s founder and CEO, said his company will use its share—the largest amount given to a California company and the fifth largest given to any company nationwide— to provide high-speed internet access to about 11,000 homes in California and Nevada.

“It makes a big difference in (rural residents’) lives,” he said. “The whole mission is closing the digital divide, providing more opportunities for schooling, operating online businesses, research, etc. It brings new businesses and brings the economy up for people in extremely rural areas.”

To help install the equipment that will provide internet at speeds of 100 megabits per second, the company plans to hire about 25 people, Ditchfield said.

And while the contract will help the company serve people in their homes, he said, the money will also help GeoLinks serve its traditional customer base of companies and organizations.

“We’re going to utilize it to help bring down the cost of service to anchor institutions like schools and libraries,” he said.

Ryan Adams, GeoLink’s president and chief operating officer, said the FCC contract shows that a local medium-size company can hold its own against powerful internet service providers like AT&T and Verizon that would typically win a government contract like this.

“It shows a company like ourselves, based here in Camarillo, that we can compete at a national level. It’s about having the right people, the right management team and the right employees to compete on this stage,” he said.

While the contract win was exciting, Adams said, GeoLinks remains focused on its mission of ensuring as many people as possible have access to high-speed internet.

“For us, it’s all about connecting people,” he said.

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Camarilo-based GeoLinks wins $87.8 million to expand rural service

Camarilo-based GeoLinks wins $87.8 million to expand rural service

The Federal Communications Commission recently released the results of its Connect America Fund Phase II auction, and Camarillo-based telecom GeoLinks says it received a total of $87.8 million to expand rural internet service in California and Nevada.

The company says it was the largest auction winner in California and fifth-largest winner in the nation overall.

“GeoLinks’ founding mission is to close the U.S. digital divide,” company co-founder and CEO Skyler Ditchfield said in a news release. “With this promise of capital from the FCC, GeoLinks will be able to further expand our network into rural areas of both California and Nevada, ultimately providing more than 11,000 rural locations with Internet at 100 megabits per second. We are excited that this new infrastructure will also reduce the cost of bringing high speed broadband access to anchor institutions such as schools, libraries, hospitals and community colleges.”

According to GeoLinks, a total of 103 providers ultimately won support in the auction to expand broadband across 45 states. The funding, which will be distributed over the next 10 years, is intended to connect 53 percent of rural homes and businesses with broadband download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second. Nineteen percent are intended to have gigabit service available. And 711,389 locations — all but 0.25% — will have at least 25 Mbps service available.

Melissa Slawson, GeoLinks’ general counsel and vice president of government affairs and education, said: “As part of its efforts to promote ubiquitous broadband access for all Americans, the FCC created the CAF II auction to enable Internet service providers to build and maintain infrastructure in unserved areas throughout the U.S. I am elated to see that a capable company of our size was granted substantial funding to further propel our mission connect rural California, Nevada, and beyond.”

Ranked in 2017 and 2018 as one of Inc. Magazine’s fastest-growing companies in America on the Inc. 5000, GeoLinks says it delivers enterprise-grade internet, digital voice, SD-WAN, cloud on-ramping, Layer 2 transport, and both public and private turnkey network construction.

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GeoLinks gets USD 87.8m to expand rural Internet in California and Nevada

GeoLinks gets USD 87.8m to expand rural Internet in California and Nevada

GeoLinks, headquartered in Camarillo, California, received a total of USD 87.8 million from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to expand rural Internet in California and Nevada, making it the largest auction winner in the state of California, and 5th largest winner in the nation overall, the company said.

The FCC allocated USD 1.488 billion to help close the US “digital divide.”

Ousting big telcos such as Verizon, Frontier, and AT&T, this is the first time the largest winner of CAF in California has been an independent operator and not an incumbent local exchange carrier (ILEC).

Headquartered in Southern California, GeoLinks is the Fastest Growing Telecom in California and a competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC) public utility, nationally awarded for its innovative Internet and Digital Voice solutions. Ranked in both 2017 and 2018 as one of Inc. Magazine´s Fastest Growing companies in America on the Inc. 5000, GeoLinks delivers Enterprise-Grade Internet, Digital Voice, SD-WAN, Cloud On-ramping, Layer 2 Transport, and both Public and Private Turnkey Network Construction expertly tailored for businesses and Anchor Institutions nationwide.

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GeoLinks gets $88 million grant to build out rural internet network

GeoLinks gets $88 million grant to build out rural internet network

By    /   Friday, August 31st, 2018  /

GeoLinks co-founders Skyler Ditchfield, left, and Ryan Adams in the lobby of the company’s headquarters in Camarillo.

An $87.8 million grant to Camarillo telecommunications company GeoLinks will fund the build-out of high-speed internet networks in rural communities of California and Nevada, including parts of the Tri-Counties.

Granted by the Federal Communications Commission as part of nearly $1.5 billion allocated to 103 providers through the Connect America Fund Auction, the deal was the largest allocation in the state and fifth largest in the nation.

Awardees submitted bids to cover more than 700,000 rural homes and small businesses across 45 states. More than half of the locations will be connected with download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second, the FCC said in its announcement.

GeoLinks had an existing presence near several of the target locations and had been gearing up for the bid for several months, said CEO Skyler Ditchfield

“It’s really going to help us cross this digital divide,” he told the Business Times, adding that the company plans to layer in “anchor institutions” such as hospitals, schools, libraries and community colleges.

Moreover, the auction “encouraged innovation” by allowing providers to use any broadband technology that met the performance standards, the FCC’s statement said. It was weighted toward bids that would provide higher speeds, higher usage allowances and lower latency.

That included GeoLinks’ solar-powered fixed signal facilities, Ditchfield said, which also means the company isn’t limited by access to utility lines.

With several companies in the mix offering fixed wireless, the deal demonstrates that it’s “a viable alternative to landline options … not an alternative option but a primary option,” he said.

Including GeoLinks, five California companies were awarded a total of $149 million to develop network access for nearly 52,000 locations. Nevada companies received a combined $29.3 million for four bids to bring internet access to around 14,000 locations.

“The successful conclusion of this first-of-its kind auction is great news for the residents of these rural communities, who will finally be able to share in the 21st-century digital opportunities that broadband provides,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in the announcement.

“By tapping the mechanisms of the marketplace, the Phase II auction served as the most appropriate and cost-effective way to allocate funding for broadband in these unserved communities, bringing the highest-quality broadband services to the most consumers at the lowest cost to the ratepayer.”

The FCC is also working toward the launch of a $4.5 billion effort to expand 4G LTE wireless coverage for customers in rural regions called the Mobility Fund Phase II auction. A six-year, $9 billion program through Connect America will also work to extend broadband access in areas already served by large carriers.

GeoLinks has been active in advocating for the use of “white spaces” frequencies and grants to help cover upfront installation costs as a member of an FCC advisory committee working group and the Schools, Health & Library Broadband Coalition.

In an effort to broaden its reach and lure more tech workers, the company moved into a 38,000-square-foot space in Camarillo in mid-2017 and rebranded from its former name California Internet. With 48 employees on staff, it projected that it would reach $17 million in revenue for 2018, up 21 percent from the prior year.

In addition to its March acquisition of Huntington Beach-based fixed wireless provider Vectus, another acquisition is in the works for GeoLinks, Ditchfield said, which would potentially “add density for us in California and Nevada.”

The company, which got its start in Ojai, is also working to bring 3 gigabit service using the technology to urban areas in Southern California and elsewhere. As part of the grant, it will help build out networks for rural communities in Ventura County.

Access to high-speed internet helps drive economic opportunity for small businesses in those areas, Ditchfield said.

“It’s going to be a long build process that we’ll be gearing up for, but it’s exciting, because it’ll add more jobs and really bring hope to some of these areas in terms of economic growth.”

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With $87.3 million in FCC funding, GeoLinks plans rural broadband expansion

With $87.3 million in FCC funding, GeoLinks plans rural broadband expansion

California-based fixed wireless provider details plans for extending rural broadband access into underserved and unserved markets

GeoLinks, a California-based rural broadband provider, walked away from the U.S. Federal Communication Commission’s Connect America Fund auction with $87.3 million to expand its coverage area in its home state and next door in Nevada. GeoLinks was the biggest winner in California and the fifth biggest in the country.

The award is part of the FCC’s funding of $1.488 billion over 10 years to 103 service providers taking on the mandate to connected an additional 713,176 homes and business in 45 states. Per the terms of the funding, service providers receiving aid have to reach 40% of locations in a state within three years of funding authorization and construction must increase 20% each year with the goal of finishing in year six.

Skyler Ditchfield, CEO of GeoLinks, told RCR Wireless News via email that the company is “very pleased with the win. It really solidifies our business plans to continue to densify California. California is such a big state, people don’t realize how much of it is severely lacking broadband access. That includes major anchor institutions like libraries, schools, healthcare, first responder locations and more. These places are beyond the reach of most existing networks and rely on very old, slow and expensive copper services if any.”

GeoLinks, as it builds out its network, will look for opportunities to rapidly deploy by making batch deals for infrastructure siting with these anchor institutions. Ditchfield explained. He also noted the need to invest in long distance backhaul.

“We have backbone network running near some of these areas and in some areas we are not close at all…These areas are so remote the nearest fiber junctions are 100-plus miles away. So we will be building long backhauls via multi-gigabit fixed wireless. There isn’t anything in place in these areas for distribution so nearly 100% of the work will be greenfield.”

On the batch deals with anchor institutions, Ditchfield said, “We are hoping for a warm reception from them and residents alike as the more private land we can get quick and easy access to the faster we can deploy and at higher potential speeds of access. The operational costs over time of these networks are one of the big issues in these rural areas because the homes are so few and far between. This is where we really hope to find good allies in the land owners that want to work with us for quick and easy deployments of network backbone infrastructure.”

This round of funding is just one prong of the FCC’s rural broadband and cellular strategy. The Mobility Fund II auction is designed to allocated $4.53 billion to expand LTE coverage in rural markets and the Connect America Fund will shell out $9 billion over six years for rural buildout in areas served by major carriers.

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GeoLinks Lands Big Grant From FCC

GeoLinks Lands Big Grant From FCC

By Mark Madler

GeoLinks has been awarded $87.8 million from the Federal Communications Commission to bring broadband service to rural areas in California and Nevada.

The Camarillo company was the recipient of the largest amount in California from the FCC’s Connect America Fund Phase II auction and the fifth largest overall. The auction provided a total of $1.49 billion that will be allocated over the next 10 years.

“As part of its efforts to promote ubiquitous broadband access for all Americans, the FCC created the (Connect America) auction to enable Internet service providers to build and maintain infrastructure in unserved areas throughout the U.S.,” said Melissa Slawson, general counsel and vice president of government affairs and education for GeoLinks, in an email to the Business Journal.

The company will bring broadband service to more than 11,000 rural households in California and Nevada.

GeoLinks co-founder and Chief Executive Skyler Ditchfield said he was thrilled that a mid-sized Internet service provider secured the largest grant in the state and be in the top 5 nationally.

“Not only does this secure a bright future for the rural communities we will service, but it also allows our company to have a secure future and bring more jobs into our local economy,” Ditchfield said in a statement.

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GeoLinks Earns its place on Inc. Magazine’s 37th Annual List of America’s Fastest-Growing Private Companies—the Inc. 5000

GeoLinks Earns its place on Inc. Magazine’s 37th Annual List of America’s Fastest-Growing Private Companies—the Inc. 5000

CAMARILLO, Calif.–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Inc. magazine today revealed that GeoLinks is No. 786 on its 37th annual Inc. 5000, the most prestigious ranking of the nation’s fastest-growing private companies. The list represents a unique look at the most successful companies within the American economy’s most dynamic segment—its independent small businesses. Microsoft, Dell, Domino’s Pizza, Pandora, Timberland, LinkedIn, Yelp, Zillow, and many other well-known names gained their first national exposure as honorees on the Inc. 5000.

GeoLinks Earns its place on Inc. Magazine’s 37th Annual List of America’s Fastest-Growing Private Companies—the Inc. 5000

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“According to Inc. Media Editor in Chief, James Ledbetter, of the tens of thousands of companies that have applied to Inc. 5000 over the years, only a fraction have made the list more than once,” said GeoLinks’ CEO Skyler Ditchfield. “A mere one-in-three have made the list two times, and I am both proud and humbled that GeoLinks can officially claim the honor of once again being the largest fastest-growing ISP on the Inc. 5000. This is all further motivation to continue large scale growth to support our mission of closing the US digital divide. Looking forward, we plan to continue to focus on hypergrowth to close this gap, thus, everyone can expect to see GeoLinks here for many years to come.”

Not only have the companies on the 2018 Inc. 5000 (which are listed online at Inc.com, with the top 500 companies featured in the September issue of Inc., available on newsstands August 15) been very competitive within their markets, but the list as a whole shows staggering growth compared with prior lists. The 2018 Inc. 5000 achieved an astounding three-year average growth of 538.2 percent and a median rate of 171.8 percent; GeoLinks smashed the average at 635 percent. The Inc. 5000’s aggregate revenue was $206.1 billion in 2017, accounting for 664,095 jobs over the past three years.

Complete results of the Inc. 5000, including company profiles and an interactive database that can be sorted by industry, region, and other criteria, can be found at www.inc.com/inc5000.

“If your company is on the Inc. 5000, it’s unparalleled recognition of your years of hard work and sacrifice,” says Inc. editor in chief James Ledbetter. “The lines of business may come and go, or come and stay. What doesn’t change is the way entrepreneurs create and accelerate the forces that shape our lives.”

The annual Inc. 5000 event honoring the companies on the list will be held October 17 to 19, 2018, at the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort, in San Antonio, Texas. As always, speakers include some of the greatest innovators and business leaders of our generation.

For media inquiries or to schedule an interview with GeoLinks’ CEO Skyler Ditchfield, please contact Lexie Olson at lolson(at)geolinks.com.


Headquartered in Southern California, GeoLinks is a leading telecommunications company and competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC) public utility, nationally recognized for its innovative Internet and Digital Voice solutions. Ranked No. 5 by category on Inc. Magazine’s 2017 Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Companies in America, GeoLinks delivers Enterprise-Grade Internet, Digital Voice, SD-WANCloud On-ramping, Layer 2 Transport, and both Public and Private Turnkey Network Construction expertly tailored for businesses and Anchor Institutions nationwide.

GeoLinks’ accelerated success is largely due to its flagship product, ClearFiber™, which offers dedicated business-class Internet with unlimited bandwidth, true network redundancy, and guaranteed speeds reaching up to 10 Gbps. Named “Most Disruptive Technology”in the 2018 Central Coast Innovation Awards, GeoLinks’ ClearFiber™ network is backed by a carrier-grade Service Level Agreement boasting 99.999% uptime and 24/7 in-house customer support. With an average installation period of 4-to-7 days, GeoLinks is proud to offer the most resilient and scalable fixed wireless network on the market.

More about Inc. and the Inc. 5000


The 2018 Inc. 5000 is ranked according to percentage revenue growth when comparing 2014 and 2018. To qualify, companies must have been founded and generating revenue by March 31, 2014. They had to be U.S.-based, privately held, for profit, and independent—not subsidiaries or divisions of other companies—as of December 31, 2017. (Since then, a number of companies on the list have gone public or been acquired.) The minimum revenue required for 2014 is $100,000; the minimum for 2017 is $2 million. As always, Inc. reserves the right to decline applicants for subjective reasons. Companies on the Inc. 500 are featured in Inc.’s September issue. They represent the top tier of the Inc. 5000, which can be found at http://www.inc.com/inc5000.

About Inc. Media

Founded in 1979 and acquired in 2005 by Mansueto Ventures, Inc. is the only major brand dedicated exclusively to owners and managers of growing private companies, with the aim to deliver real solutions for today’s innovative company builders. Inc. took home the National Magazine Award for General Excellence in both 2014 and 2012. The total monthly audience reach for the brand has been growing significantly, from 2,000,000 in 2010 to more than 18,000,000 today. For more information, visit www.inc.com.

The Inc. 5000 is a list of the fastest-growing private companies in the nation. Started in 1982, this prestigious list has become the hallmark of entrepreneurial success. The Inc. 5000 Conference & Awards Ceremony is an annual event that celebrates the remarkable achievements of these companies. The event also offers informative workshops, celebrated keynote speakers, and evening functions.

For more information on Inc. and the Inc. 5000 Conference, visit http://conference.inc.com/.


Inc. Media
Drew Kerr, 212-849-8250
[email protected]
Lexie Olson

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The SHLB Coalition Applauds the FCC’s “Connected Care” Proposal

The SHLB Coalition Applauds the FCC’s “Connected Care” Proposal

For Immediate Release

Alicja Johnson
[email protected]
(202) 261-6599

Washington, DC (August 2, 2018) – The Federal Communications Commission voted today to explore creating a $100 million “Connected Care Pilot Program,” which aims to bring telehealth to low-income Americans. The Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition applauds the FCC’s leadership in proposing to expand telemedicine access to those who need it most.

The following statement can be attributed to John Windhausen Jr., Executive Director of the SHLB Coalition:

“The idea of connected care is still in its infancy, yet it has enormous potential to help people across rural America – veterans and low-income patients in particular. That is why the SHLB Coalition called upon the FCC to provide a discount for the wireless broadband costs of providing remote home monitoring in our 2015 Petition for Rulemaking.  The Connected Care Pilot Program could provide a unique opportunity for the FCC to collaborate with broadband providers, healthcare providers and other government agencies to ensure that low-income consumers and rural communities have low-cost, high-quality telemedicine services.  The SHLB Coalition and its members look forward to working with the FCC to build up this program.”

Visit http://www.shlb.org/policy/Rural-Health-Care to learn more about SHLB’s advocacy to improve our nation’s telehealth.


About The SHLB Coalition:

The SHLB Coalition is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) advocacy organization that supports open, affordable, high-quality broadband connections for anchor institutions and their surrounding communities. The SHLB Coalition is based in Washington, DC and has a diverse membership of commercial and non-commercial organizations from across the United States.  To learn more, visit www.shlb.org.

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Five Crucial Steps Needed To Close The U.S. Digital Divide

Five Crucial Steps Needed To Close The U.S. Digital Divide

POST WRITTEN BY Skyler Ditchfield

CEO of GeoLinks, the Fastest Growing WISP in America named 2018 “Most Disruptive Technology” for its ClearFiber™ Network.


If you were to google “how to close the digital divide,” you would not come up empty-handed. As a quick precursor, for those of you who may be unfamiliar, the digital divide refers to the inequalities in finances, education and social status faced by those without computers and access to the internet versus those who do. Because having equal access to digital technology is at the core of the divide, broadband availability, or the lack thereof, has become a highly publicized and debated topic between politicians and telecommunications companies (telcos) alike. Nevertheless, the divide still remains and arguably will continue to remain unless the following five steps are taken.

Step 1: Redirect Federal Funding Distribution

The federal government has allocated and continues to allocate ample funding toward closing the digital divide. Consequently, over the past 20 years, we’ve been able to raise broadband standards considerably, at least in urban and suburban markets. Unfortunately, however, the majority of these funds are awarded to major telcos and incumbent providers, and without a guaranteed long-term revenue case in rural America, they have minimal incentive to invest in new infrastructure or to improve current infrastructure. While this may make sense for their personal bottom lines, it does not benefit the American public. So, if large telcos can’t or won’t service rural America, who will?

First, if you have an option to buy from a small local provider, do so — you will consequently be supporting your local economy. However, the problem with totally relying on the little guys is that they are, in fact, the little guys, and often don’t have access to or the power to access the spectrum of state-of-the-art equipment or fiber assets that enable other providers to offer competitive, cost-effective and high-bandwidth solutions.

Another option is the middle road between mom-and-pop and the incumbent providers — the mid-sized internet service provider. As it currently stands, mid-sized ISPs do not have the financial resources of big telcos to build out low-cost products with long return on investment, thus making them less competitive for consumers. However, if granted adequate funding to build out infrastructure, these mid-sized telcos have the opportunity to give the mega-ISPs true competition, ultimately keeping the market honest, fair and favored toward the public’s best interest.

Step 2: Open The Airwaves, Fairly 

As it currently stands, today’s major cellular companies hold the vast majority of wireless spectrum allotted by the FCC to resolve the digital divide. These services, while important, do not currently deliver the entire bandwidth necessary to meet the needs of all unconnected Americans. However, the United States still has ample wireless spectrum available. If the FCC and Capitol Hill can appropriate these assets to companies that truly support the public’s best interest, and said companies utilize and deploy intelligently, the utopian idea of one day delivering one-gigabit speeds to every home in America is possible. 

Step 3: Implement A True Accountability Structure

On February 12, 2018, the White House released the Legislative Outline for Rebuilding Infrastructure in America. The outline, which acknowledges the horrific state of the nation’s current infrastructure, demonstrates the new administration’s framework, meant to build a better future for all Americans. To its credit, there is a handful of positive action items presented in the outline. From empowering individual state decision-making, to establishing true accountability structures, to expediting and streamlining overall permitting and federal agency processes, at its core, the outline perceivably serves in the general best interest of the American public.

However, it can also be argued that there are inherent and massive flaws in the outline that will ultimately prevent these goals from reaching fruition. For example, past the inadequate division of funding, there is not a clear timeline of when all legislation changes must take effect. Therefore, even though once these changes are enacted there is a 24-month timeline, there isn’t a clear delineation of an official launch date. To paint an extreme example, this outline could have us all sitting here in five or 10 years still spewing on initiatives that could be and could make a better future. Thus, the administration needs to follow up its outline with immediate deadlines in order to formalize proposed accountability structures.

Step 4: Expedite The Use Of Federal Lands

As touched upon above, the idea of expediting processes has been proposed. However, even if we could ensure grant winners would build out as planned, the fact remains that 28% of the U.S. is federally owned, and many of these sites are in areas we need to get through or use for broadcast areas. It’s imperative we support operators’ build times by expediting permitting the use of federal lands sooner than later, and preferably now.

Step 5: Adopt A Technology-Agnostic Hybrid Approach 

While states and communities across the country continue to request fiber optic networks, the reality is that building out fiber infrastructure to every location in America is both cost- and time-prohibitive. Therefore, fiber is not the complete solution if we’re aiming to close the divide in a timely manner. The solution, rather, lies in adapting and building out technology-agnostic hybrid networks. From fiber, to fixed wireless, to 4G and 5G LTE, all of these technologies have their time and place in closing the divide. While there are pros and cons to each method, when used together, they have the ability to create a complete solution that can deliver gigabit and multi-gigabit bandwidth to both urban and ultra-rural communities.

So, If We Know How, Why Is There Still A Divide?

The answer is simple: lack of action. We know the course; now we need to implement. Therefore, to all of those reading this who feel inspired or compelled to truly take part in closing the divide, reach out to your local and state municipalities, and demand action.

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Wireless smart farming to keep frost away from citrus

Wireless smart farming to keep frost away from citrus

Computer scientists from UCSB team up with citrus researchers to make a smart farm system that reports temperatures and may eventually automate the use of wind machines that keep frost off citrus crops.

Computer science researchers from the University of California Santa Barbara are using the internet of things to prove that smart farming can be a farm implement as basic as the tractor and plough.

The husband and wife team of Chandra Krintz and Rich Wolski, both UCSB computer science professors, think data analytics can help tackle some of the tough challenges of modern agriculture. They want to apply the predictive mathematical leaps used in modern internet commerce to predict what people will buy, to agriculture. The pair created the UCSB SmartFarm program in response to what they see as the main issues of agriculture.

Krintz and Wolski cite U.S. Department of Agriculture and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization studies that say some scary stuff: increasingly more food is needed to feed the growing global population, and yet farm labor is in short supply or too expensive. Eighty percent of the fresh water and 30% of global energy is used to produce food, half of which we waste in spoilage. Farming also has some particularly tough foes: Pests and disease attack farms’ output and farm land is subsiding (sinking) — especially in California — because of groundwater overdraft. On top of all that, agriculture makes 22% of greenhouse gases.

The only way smart farming can make a dent on those issues is to attack specific problems. For Krintz and Wolski’s first test projects, they talked to the farmer — in this case, farm researchers — first before designing a system. Although almost every ag tech pitch begins with a summary of those issues, the UCSB computer scientists’ approach is to come up with scientifically vetted data about the usefulness of cloud and data analytics in farming.

The design parameters of behind UCSB SmartFarm’s Farm Cloud System is to make a system a farmer could love: it should be easy to use and work reliably, cheaply and privately — farmers don’t want their data accessible. The system needs to provide useful data to help increase yield, automate farm operations or save money (or all three), and the data must be available real time. The whole thing has to work without IT staff.

The self-managing system needs to work like an appliance, like your refrigerator, write Krintz and Wolski in a presentation about the project.

Krintz and Wolski are testing the system on nut trees at Fresno State and on citrus at the University of California’s Lindcove Research and Extension Center (LREC) near Visalia, Calif. The UCSB SmartFarm program has support from Google, Huawei, IBM Research, Microsoft Research, the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and the California Energy Commission.

RCR Wireless News visited the LREC — a literal test bed for citrus and smart farming — and got the full tour of the UCSB’s Farm Cloud System.

Lindcove’s research mandate

The public is probably not aware that agricultural research centers, such as LREC (Lindcove), do the hard science that protects our food. In the case of Lindcove, hard science is the study of mostly citrus trees, and it means the grueling work of studying each tree.

Dr. Beth Grafton-Cardwell, research entomologist, an integrated pest management (IPM) specialist and Lindcove’s director remembers sorting fruit by hand.

“When I first started in 1990, if we harvested in January, we would stand in the field in our long underwear and they would pick fruit into a bin and we would have ring sizers that told us what size the fruit was. We would count the fruit and size the fruit and write it on a clip board on a piece of paper,” she said. “Now this machine can do this better.”

Standing near a huge packing line machine that dwarfed her, Grafton-Cardwell explained how the cameras and the extra sensors enable the machine to size and weigh the fruit, examine the outside of the fruit using three types of cameras and estimate the juice level inside. One tree goes through the machine at a time, for scientific purposes, which differs from how a normal packing house operates.

“If I am a researcher, each of my trees is a replication and a different situation, so I want to know everything there is to know about the fruit on that tree,” said Grafton-Cardwell. The cameras take about 30 photographs of each piece of fruit, rotating the fruit as they go. Every parameter from each piece of fruit is put into a spreadsheet: “We know the size, the shape, if it has scarring, the precise color,” said Grafton-Cardwell.

The growers paid for Lindcove’s packing line. “We can simulate anything you want to do on a commercial pack line,” said Grafton-Cardwell. All packing houses have these machines but don’t use them the way researchers do. They don’t need the precision of numbers that researchers need.

“You have to train the machine to the colors and the blemishes. It can get overwhelming,” said Kurt Schmidt, Lindcove’s principal superintendent of agriculture. “We can slow everything down and gather an infinite amount of data.”

“The data sets are ginormous,” Grafton-Cardwell pointed out. Data and an interpretation of the data is the really the product that Lindcove produces.

Dr. Beth Grafton-Cardwell, Lindcove’s director, shows off the packing line machinery at UC ANR’s Lindcove Research and Extension Center, near Visalia, California. The huge measures, weighs citrus, among other datasets. (Image: RCR Wireless News)

Originally started in 1959 by University of California Riverside and San Joaquin Valley citrus growers, Lindcove helps growers try out treatments and crop varieties without experimenting on their own crops, which protects their orchards — and livelihood. “Researchers from around the state can come here and do experiments,” said Grafton-Cardwell. Lindcove focuses on creating new varietals and demonstrating gardens of hundreds of citrus — a demo garden that is repeated in several other locations, such as the desert, for comparison. The center is working on 30 research projects right now.

“Citrus grows quite easily statewide….there are 300,000 acres [planted]statewide. It’s all fresh market, [California growers] don’t do juice. If the growers produce for juice, they lose money,” said Grafton-Cardwell. Florida and Brazil are the juice producers.

“Their climate doesn’t produce a good-tasting fruit, so they stick with juice,” said Schmidt.

Lindcove is one of nine research centers in the University of California’s Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR) department. With soil and climate typical for the commercial citrus growing in the Central Valley of California, the Lindcove’s 175 idyllic acres may be tucked remotely against the Sierra foothills on the road to Sequoia National Park, but it’s on the forefront of fighting some pretty scary citrus pests.

The Huanglongbing (HLB) bacterium has the citrus industry in California in an increasing panic. This bacterium, spread by the Asian citrus psyllids, a small bug imported from Asia, is making its way up through Mexico into California starting with Southern California.

Huanglongbing, also known as citrus greening disease, is killing trees at alarming rates and there is no cure yet. “It has devastated Florida. Huanglongbing has knocked their acreage down by 50 percent,” said Grafton-Cardwell. “We are trying to get some proactive research going to prepare for the arrival of the disease in the commercial citrus. Right now it is just in residential backyards, but it is going to get to the commercial citrus in the near future,” said Grafton-Cardwell.

In California, it is particularly hard to control because of the prevalence of backyard citrus trees.

“Right now it is just in Southern California. We are up to about 650 trees in Southern California that tested positive,” said Grafton-Cardwell. All of those infected trees were in residential yards. Therein lies the problem: An estimated 60% of homeowners have a citrus tree in their yard. “That’s like 15 million citrus trees. How do you manage a disease when you’ve got 30 million commercial trees and 15 million residential trees? It is very difficult,” she said. “Homeowners don’t understand plant disease, they don’t understand how to manage the pest, they don’t understand the risk.”

Dr. Beth Grafton-Cardwell, research entomologist, an integrated pest management (IPM) specialist and Lindcove’s director, examines the screen on a screenhouse. The screen is rated to keep out bugs as small as thrips, to protect clonal varieties of citrus. (Image: RCR Wireless News, Susan Rambo)

A screenhouse at Lindcove, UC ANR’s research and extension center near Visalia, Calif., contains citrus clones for nurseries and growers to use. The program maintains clean clones of citrus varieties. (Image: RCR Wireless News, Susan Rambo)

Unrelated to HLB, but nonetheless an insurance policy for all citrus growers, is Lindcove’s Citrus Clonal Protection Program (CCPP) out of UCR. Lindcove preserves and archives original bud wood of citrus varieties as part of CCPP. Large screenhouses — greenhouses with screens instead of glass — hold clean bud wood, which nurseries, growers and even citrus enthusiasts can use to propagate citrus plants. The citrus buds are grafted to root stock and grown into trees in the screenhouses, where they are protected from insects.

The screens on these structures are “rated for thrips” — so fine that thrips or psyllids can’t get through it. Recently when one of the screens split along one seam, the researchers destroyed all the trees in the compromised screenhouse and disinfected it before repairing it. This is serious business.

First, the network

Lindcove has a new network capability now. “We are really excited,” said Dr. Grafton-Cardwell. “It has taken us ten years to get to the point where we have a network that can support all this, because we are out in the boonies.”

Lindcove now uses the fiber network from CENIC —  the non-profit network operator for the California universities, colleges, schools and libraries — and fixed wireless company GeoLinks for last-mile wireless.

“We were getting our internet from a local provider here in Visalia with limited bandwidth for a lot of money,” said Schmidt. “So now we’ve got this big connection that has the potential to have a large bandwidth. We’re in pretty good shape.”

“ANR pushed really hard in the last couple years to develop the funding to do this for all the research and extension centers, all nine of them, because we were all created back in the 1950s, and most of us in the boonies, and none of us had decent network capability. For scientists in this day and age to do research, it is totally revolutionary,” said Grafton-Cardwell. “When I first came in 1990, we weren’t able to do any of this stuff. Computing was really primitive and now it is going to improve what we do.”

Smart farm at Lindcove

“I didn’t even know what the internet of things was before Rich Wolski explained it,” said Grafton-Cardwell, but now she can’t wait to get it.

The goal of the UCSB’s smart farm test at Lindcove is to improve the decision making for frost protection for citrus growers, which should help reduce costs and carbon footprint.

Schmidt pointed out the culprit: the big windmills on citrus farms. These windmills are needed because the typical inversion layer of warmer air holds cold air to the ground, which damages fruit. The windmills circulate the air when frost is imminent. “It costs $30K a season to run these,” said Schmidt. That’s not even counting the cost of having to run around to the fields in a truck, taking temperature readings at all hours to make a decision when to turn on the windy gas guzzlers.

One windfan and its propane tank peeking out from among rows of citrus at UC ANR’s Lindcove July 9th, 2018, near Visalia, California. (Image: RCR Wireless News, Susan Rambo)

Krintz and Wolski’s team of students have installed low-cost, sturdy weather stations that can withstand the elements and accurately sense temperature and humidity at 5 feet and 30 feet from the ground. The stations are installed to be able to monitor 3 feet from the boundaries of where the windfans cover. The poles also have surveillance cameras with infrared capability to allow more temperature measurement, beyond regular thermometers. A network station in the field moves the data to the office on-site. Drones are also used “on the fly” to monitor at different levels.

Measuring and estimating the evaporation and transpiration under the tree canopy and sending that data to the office means that someone like Kurt Schmidt won’t have to manually take the temperature every hour at all hours, to determine when to turn on the fans. Also, tapping into Schmidt’s knowledge of when the fans need to be turned on will help inform the system; Krintz and Wolski can write software to automate the fans operations. Having more detailed information in real time means saving fuel if one windfan on one end of a microclimate doesn’t need to be turned on, even though others may need to run.

This frost experiment is only the beginning.

“We have a laboratory here that has equipment in it that again, we could be connecting,” said Grafton-Cardwell. “One of the things I proposed to Chandra [Krintz] and Rich [Wolski], is we have all these data in separate units. The pack line generates data, …we are collecting data from the field. That is going into files. The data aren’t connected in any shape or form.”

Grafton-Cardwell’s ultimate goal is to have a researcher go into a portal and view all the data associated with their research.

UCSB SmartFarm sensor approximately 5 feet off the ground surrounded by citrus will help UC ANR’s Lindcove researchers know when to turn on windfans to protect plants from frost. (Image: RCR Wireless News)

The pole holding sensors and cameras for UCSB’s SmartFarm program. (Image: RCR Wireless News)

UCSB’s smartfarm pole at UC ANR’s LREC.

Dr. Beth Grafton-Cardwell, research entomologist, an integrated pest management (IPM) specialist and Lindcove’s director (right); Kurt Schmidt, Lindcove’s principal superintendent of agriculture, (left) stand in Lindcove orchard in front of UCSB smartfarm experiment. (Image: RCR Wireless News, Susan Rambo)

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