Using Livestock for Wi-Fi

The future of wireless Internet isn’t laser technology or a satellite array in space. It’s something far more creative: livestock. We typically think of sheep as a metaphor for unthinking conformists. But a group of Welsh researchers, led by Professor Gordon Blair at Lancaster University, unintentionally made sheep an off-the-wall solution to the problem of increasing Wi-Fi access in rural areas. Baa Baa Broadband? EU regulations already require sheep to wear electronic tags. As part of a study to track their movements, behavior, and environmental impact, many Welsh sheep will also be fitted with tracking collars that broadcast data over a five-kilometer range. While Blair admits that this wasn’t his project’s goal at all, and that other animals might be better at the job. Still, some creative thinker wondered: why, given the collars’ capabilities, can’t we use them as Wi-Fi hotspots? On its surface, the idea seems outlandish. But then again, aren’t we talking about wirelessly sending all the world’s information to a phone-sized computer? Let’s give it a chance. Have You Any Wi-Fi? Three Bars Full. Believe it or not, this isn’t the first time someone has proposed using animals to deliver Wi-Fi. Though there’s no word on how well it worked, it’s reportedly already been tested using reindeer belonging to the Sámi nomads living across Scandinavia. We imagine that most livestock should work out about the same in terms of Wi-Fi potential, though it does seem that wandering, free-range animals are better suited to this role than factory farms that have become more common in our country. For the health of the animals, the transmitters are small, no bigger than a pack of cigarettes. Which animal is used isn’t terribly important, and collars could easily be fitted to whichever livestock is most common in a particular area. However, larger animals like cows might be able to carry larger, more powerful transmitters, benefiting beef-ranching areas like rural Oklahoma. In this concept, sheep and other livestock are really nothing more than mobile platforms for devices connected to the Internet of Things. While sheep aren’t especially smart, their collars certainly can be. And those collars can provide ranchers with useful information just as their tractors could. Why not use the spare bandwidth for Wi-Fi? Herds Help Don’t expect your family’s cat or dog to help earn extra money by wearing a Wi-Fi collar. The reason that herd animals work well for this proposal is that with each member of the group connected, the entire herd becomes a living mesh network, similar to the way your smartphone can connect to the Internet through other nearby phones. Data can bounce back and forth between individual animals, making the entire network more reliable than one with a single transmitter. And while each individual animal produces a relatively weak signal, so many transmitters in relative proximity can spread the signal over longer distances. Assuming this admittedly odd idea ever truly works in practice, it’s something that will obviously benefit rural areas far more than cities. But it’s those rural areas that need the most help with high-speed Internet connections. It still needs to be tested to see how well it works and what kind of speed would be possible—perhaps we’ll see it tested in developing countries before investors in our country give it a chance. Whatever Works, Right? We may never experience Wi-Fi via livestock, but the fact that someone came up with the idea shows just how creative researchers and tech industry leaders are getting at solving the problems surrounding rural connectivity. Looking to solve your own connectivity problems? Don’t be sheepish about it—if you’re trying to find a faster connection, you’ve come to the right place. [zipfinder] Photo Credit: Anne Marie Cunningham/Flikr

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Will Smith is a copywriter living in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His favorite word is “petrichor,” and aside from wordplay, he loves reading history, watching Dodger baseball, and racing with the Sports Car Club of America.

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