John Deere tractors get connectivity boost with Starlink deal

SpaceX gets chance to prove the FCC was wrong for rejecting its $885m rural broadband subsidy bid

Farm equipment maker John Deere has signed a deal with SpaceX to use its Starlink satellite internet service to keep combines and other farm equipment connected to the internet in underserved rural areas.

SpaceX-owned Starlink announced the deal on X (formerly Twitter) yesterday, saying that its service is "ideal for rural locations." Starlink said the contract will cover John Deere kit in the United States and Brazil.

John Deere hasn't commented on the agreement, only reposting Starlink's tweet and an additional one from SpaceX boss Elon Musk, who described it as "great for farmers." Deere didn't respond to questions from The Register.

The farm equipment giant's hardware has been increasingly connected to the internet over the years, with Deere pushing its John Deere Operations Center (JDOC) software as a way for farmers to manage their equipment and view various types of data pertaining to their farm's environs and performance.

John May, CEO at John Deere, predicted in 2022 that some 10 percent of the company's revenue would come from software fees by 2030. Making that software worth the recurring cost to cash-strapped farmers means ensuring Deere equipment isn't regularly dropping its internet connection.

John Deere has been seeking one or more satellite communications vendors to supplement internet connectivity in dead zones since late 2022, when the company announced a request for proposals to that end.

The company said it was looking for vendors to connect new and retrofitted Deere machines with ruggedized satellite terminals able to handle the harsh conditions farm equipment is regularly subjected to. 

"We believe SATCOM will unlock significant opportunities in agriculture by enabling farmers to take advantage of innovative technologies that rely on real-time information and communication," Lane Arthur, Deere VP of data, applications and analytics, said at the time. 

Modern Deere tractors and other equipment are also equipped with autonomous driving features, which Arthur said would be strengthened by the use of satellite communications. 

"Autonomous tractors benefit from real-time communication through [JDOC], as farmers use the app to start and stop the machine, monitor the job it's executing, and determine what it should do when it encounters an obstacle," Arthur said. 

Deere expects the SATCOM deals will make farmers more efficient, thus increasing food and biofuel production. 

As for SpaceX, it could use the Deere contract to prove the US Federal Communications Commission was wrong when it rejected its application for $885 million in wireless broadband funding for rural areas. 

The FCC in December said that it doubted SpaceX's ability to provide reliable service for rural customers and failed to meet its burden for proving service reliability. 

"The [FCC] has a responsibility to be a good steward of limited public funds meant to expand access to rural broadband, not fund applicants that fail to meet basic program requirements," Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement last month. ®

Updated to add

A John Deere spokesperson told The Register that the biz "is only working with SpaceX at this time," and will be equipping "all precision agriculture technologies," with ruggedized satellite dishes.

"With improved connectivity via satellites, farmers will be able to work more efficiently and productively, reduce downtime, and coordinate among machines for more efficient use of resources," we were told.

No costs for the deal were disclosed.

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