• Virgin Media O2 has partnered with Cannon Hall Farm and Springtime on the Farm presenter Jules Hudson to create the “Connected Farm of the Future” to demonstrate the transformative power of connectivity in the agriculture sector.
  • The showcase sees the operator enable mobile communication from anywhere on the farm and install a network of sensors to monitor everything from soil conditions, machinery, livestock, and land boundaries.
  • Economic modelling by the Cebr for Virgin Media O2 finds access to excellent digital connectivity1 in rural areas could increase turnover for rural agriculture businesses by nearly 10%, adding an extra £2.5 billion to the UK economy and creating more than thirty thousand new jobs.
  • Through the Shared Rural Network programme, Virgin Media O2 has recently upgraded mobile coverage in an area covering almost 2,200km² and is calling for stronger collaboration between policy makers, planning authorities and land owners to accelerate coverage enhancements.

Virgin Media O2 has created the “Connected Farm of the Future” in a trial with Cannon Hall Farm in Barnsley, designed to showcase how enhanced mobile connectivity could transform rural agriculture.

Virgin Media O2 is bringing connectivity to every corner of Cannon Hall Farm’s 126-acre estate, including historic blackspots and not-spots, to explore how a network of sensors and monitors can work together to transform the farm, saving valuable time and money. The trial helps create a blueprint for the future of farming that could help unlock an additional £2.5 billion for the UK economy and create 30,390 additional rural jobs according to new economic modelling by Cebr for Virgin Media O2.

Agriculture has faced some of the toughest challenges over the past few years, from extreme weather changes to labour shortages compounded by Brexit and the pandemic. In DEFRA’s latest Farmer Opinion Tracker, farmers on over half (52%) of holdings do not feel positive about their own future in farming, up from 41% in 2022. Virgin Media O2, Cannon Hall Farm and Jules Hudson have designed the “Connected Farm of the Future” trial to help the industry combat these challenges.

Countryman and TV Presenter for ‘Springtime on The Farm’ and ‘Escape to the Country’, Jules Hudson commented “Agriculture and farming is the largest rural industry in the UK and sits at the heart of many communities across the country. The last few years have been extremely challenging for farmers, and the research from Virgin Media O2 coupled with this trial, highlight the potential for rural farming and agriculture to be transformed with ever more useful technologies. British agriculture faces great uncertainties, but without it the foundation of our rural communities would disappear. If Virgin Media O2 and other leading industry partners can develop ways of further supporting our farmers, it will play a crucial role in the fight to keep Britain farming and thriving.” 

Virgin Media O2 has boosted its network across Cannon Hall Farm to remove signal blackspots and not-spots, providing a reliable and high-speed mobile network to the area. This supports the testing of several connected technology use cases across the farm, including:

Protecting valuable assets

As the two most common rural crimes, equipment and livestock theft cost the rural agriculture industry a combined £49.5 million in 2022 alone. Compounding the issue are gates being left open on public footpaths that run around and through many farms, leading to livestock escaping fields and being lost or injured.

Trackers, sensors and switches like those installed across Cannon Hall Farm’s equipment, livestock and gates as part of this trial enable the farmers to monitor in real time the location of these high-value items or receive alerts about gates left open. This means that farmers can be alerted instantly if equipment moves unexpectedly or leaves the farm, helping minimise the risk of loss and freeing up time previously spent doing manual checks.

Enhancing safety

With farmers often working alone across big areas and remote locations with little to no signal, access to connectivity can be a game changer, and in the most extreme instances be the difference between life and death. According to data from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), agriculture has the highest workplace injury rate of 4,100 per 100,000 workers, 3.5 times higher than the all-industry average. The trial improves safety by removing not-spots, providing reliable mobile signal across the farm and giving workers the ability to get help should they need it.

Optimising yields

Over the past 30 years, major crop yields have decreased globally by 4-10% due to climate change. To combat the impact of increasingly extreme and unpredictable weather events such as floods and droughts on crop viability and yield, part of the trial sees the installation of connected soil moisture, atmospheric temperature and humidity sensors. These sensors show the potential to monitor the health of crops and assess irrigation needs, reduce water use, improve crop quality and allow for targeted interventions based on real-time conditions.

Rob Nicholson, Owner of Cannon Hall Farm said, We are thrilled to be partnering with Virgin Media O2 to trial the “Connected Farm of the Future”. Rural connectivity opens the door to a range of new technologies than could completely change farming as we know it. Being able to monitor in real-time soil and atmospheric conditions, provide remote support and have round-the-clock monitoring of livestock, machinery and equipment is a total game-changer. The potential for this technology to help create a more efficient, profitable and sustainable future for not only our family farm but many other farms across the UK is huge.” 

Jeanie York, Chief Technology Officer at Virgin Media O2 said “This trial is an example of the transformational power of connectivity and how it’s being used to power a Great Rural Revival. Through this innovative trial with Cannon Hall Farm, we have demonstrated how a network of sensors, underpinned by excellent connectivity, can make a real impact and transform the way we live and work in rural areas. 

“We will continue to work with industry partners, the UK Government, planning authorities and landowners to deliver the network upgrades to provide faster and more reliable coverage that is essential for rural communities to thrive both now and in the future.”

Boosting UK agriculture   

The Great Rural Revival shows that improved rural connectivity could boost the UK economy by £65.1 billion and increase employment by 6.8% through the creation of hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

The report finds potential for the rural agriculture sector to increase turnover by 9.4% and boost employment, equating to an extra £2.5 billion per year and 30,390 additional jobs. However, as part of the economic modelling, decision makers within the agriculture sector were asked if they currently make use of connectivity and the results highlight the digital divide between urban and rural agriculture firms. When it comes to using connectivity for video calling / conferencing, fleet management, remote stock / inventory management or making and receiving mobile phone calls, agriculture firms in urban areas significantly outscore their rural counterparts: for example, a third (33%) of urban agriculture firms use connectivity for remote stock checking / inventory management compared to only 4% of rural businesses.

Robert Beauchamp, Managing Economist Cebr comments “Our analysis underscores the huge potential for improved connectivity to drive forward employment and turnover growth in the UK’s agricultural sector. As a predominantly rural industry, it stands to reap significant benefits from the resolution of today’s rural connectivity challenges, unlocking new opportunities for the widespread adoption of digitally-enabled technologies.”

Virgin Media O2’s commitment to rural connectivity 

Virgin Media O2 remains committed to investing to boost connectivity in rural communities and tackling signal not-spots. As part of the UK Government’s Shared Rural Network (SRN), this year the company further expanded its reliable 4G network to an additional 50 sites and secured planning consent for work at a further 100 sites.

While SRN upgrades continue to be delivered at pace, Virgin Media O2 is calling on policy makers, planning authorities and landlords to remove obstacles and ensure rural communities fulfil their potential. Specifically, the company wants rules in place making it faster, easier and lower-cost to provide the infrastructure that is required to deliver the connectivity customers rely on.

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