Brazil farmers struggle for internet signal as tech floods sector

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazil’s lack of reliable internet accessibility in rural areas is an increasingly critical problem for its farmers, as more agricultural equipment arriving on the market is built to be updated online to work at full capacity.

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Brazil’s agriculture has grown at a quick pace in the last decade, putting the country at the forefront of global food production. But infrastructure bottlenecks remain - including internet coverage.

Less than 10% of Brazilian farms have internet, according to an estimate from Tim Participações, the local arm of Telecom Italia Spa. As a comparison, over 70 percent of U.S. farmers have access to broadband internet, said a 2017 report from the U.S. Agriculture Department.

“This is a structural issue that we have in Brazil that we need to solve,” said Christian Gonzalez, vice president, South America, for Case IH, the agricultural machines division of CNH Industrial NV.

He pointed out that modern equipment such as harvesters and planters can be adjusted real-time while operating - making them more efficient.

U.S. equipment maker John Deere was one of the first to try and address this problem last year when it teamed up with telecom provider Tropico to provide a rural internet service in Brazil, offering to install LET antennas on farms to provide internet connectivity to machines and vehicles.

Other companies are trying the same approach, including Brazilian telecom companies Oi and Tim.

Tim joined forces with agricultural product suppliers such as Agco Corp, Case, Bayer and Trimble to develop an open-sourced platform to operate 4G internet connection, the ConectarAgro program.

“The lack of internet obviously puts Brazilian farmers in a complicated position, it can hurt their competitiveness going forward,” said Rafael Marquez, marketing director at Tim, who signed contracts to provide 4G internet to two major farming groups in Brazil, SLC Agrícola SA and Adecoagro SA.

“The farmer wants to use apps in the field, he wants to send a video to his agronomist when he sees a potential problem ... they want to be online,” Marques said.

Tim looks to reach 5 million hectares of farms covered by internet by the end of the year. Brazil has around 65 million hectares under cultivation.

Tim’s rival Oi closed a deal to provide internet to one of the farms managed by soybean producer and trader AMaggi. It will bring internet to the 87,000-hectare Tucanaré farm in Mato Grosso state.

Reporting by Marcelo Teixeira; Editing by Lisa Shumaker