It is vital that Tuesday’s federal budget addresses the data drought in regional Australia, farmers say.
Some of the poorest farmers in Africa have better digital connectivity than farmers here, David Statham, owner of cotton, grain and beef producer Sundown Pastoral Company, said.
He said poor data transfer was “one of the biggest issues we face on the land”.
The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) has made mobile phone connectivity one of its key budget priorities and said that “2017 has to be the year to end the data drought”.
“We want an ongoing commitment of at least $60 million each year for the Mobile Black Spot Program,” NFF president Fiona Simson said.
The NFF also wants the Universal Service Obligation broadened to guarantee rural Australians have not only telephone voice services, but data services.
Without digital connectivity, Ms Simson said, Australian agriculture would not reach its potential to be a $100 billion industry by 2030.
Poor connectivity holding back industry: Cotton Australia
Australia’s cotton industry is a world leader and has embraced new technology, but it needs better connectivity to stay globally competitive, Cotton Australia CEO Adam Kay said.
“We’re seeing already autonomous tractors and spread rigs that are going to be relying on the GPS signals, we’ve got moisture probes in the field constantly sending messages back to the farm manager to help drive decisions on irrigation … and you’ve got drone data coming in,” he said.
The workers at Sundown Pastoral Company’s cotton and grain fields in north-western New South Wales battle with digital connection and transfer issues every day, manager Nick Gilingham said.
He said the company had invested heavily in the latest technology so that data from farm machinery and equipment could be accessed live in the field — a necessity on a 250-square-kilometre property, he said.
“It’s frustrating to embrace technology and then you can’t use it,” he said, particularly when decisions which could cost millions of dollars in lost production rely upon real-time data.
The area’s wireless communications tower is on the company’s property, but its 3G technology was no help with data transfer, Mr Gillingham said.
Instead, Sundown had to put up its own aerial and satellite dishes to connect with the 4G tower in Moree, 35 kilometres away.
“That’s fixed the office, but not the paddock,” he said.
Innovations ‘useless’ without reliable internet
Sundown’s cotton and grain business has an annual turnover of about $50 million, and Mr Statham said he was keen to fully automate his irrigation and move to driverless tractors.
“But all of these innovations are useless to us unless we’ve got reliable connectivity,” he said.
He said farmers in the middle of Sudan were able to take soil samples to a bus with satellite technology which sends their soil tests to The Netherlands for analysis with results coming back within an hour or two.
“The farmers then walk away with the fertiliser requirements for their particular patch and it has improved [production in] that area, that zone, by about 10 times … just growing their own food, being sustainable,” he said.
“That just puts it in perspective.”
Budget unlikely to offer farmers reprieve
Australian farmers, however, are unlikely to find much earmarked in this year’s budget to address their telecommunications concerns.
In a statement to the ABC, a spokesman for Regional Communications Minister Senator Fiona Nash said the Government was already investing $4 billion to deliver broadband to rural, regional and remote Australians, and was helping to build 765 new phone towers across the country.
The spokesman said the National Broadband Network’s Skymuster satellite services had improved dramatically with far fewer outages, and that a trial was underway which could see mobile receivers available for utes and farm machinery.
While welcome, NFF President Fiona Simson said Skymuster was not a silver bullet.
“It’s really important we keep working to improve not just NBN satellites — and what that’s providing for most of the farmers in Australia — but also keep looking at wi-fi coverage and how we improve that,” she said.
Mr Gilingham said Sundown Pastoral had not pursued satellite services for its cotton and grain fields near Moree.
He said the company had used Skymuster services on one of its cattle properties in New England, NSW, but that it had been “down more times than it was up”.