WHEN Slim Dusty sang about a pub with no beer in the 1950’s - based on a poem by an outback farmer forced to abandon his local watering hole bitterly disappointed, after the war-rationed establishment was drunk-dry the night before by US servicemen - his iconic record went gold.
Becoming the biggest selling single of its time, the country tune’s lyrics humorously articulated the agonising possibility of a beer-less public-house in the bush, which sent a collective shiver down the spines of ordinary hard-working Australians everywhere.
Now, Victorian grain farmer Brett Hosking is singing-out a modern warning to federal politicians about the latest excruciating social dilemma facing rural Australians - farm businesses and communities with lacklustre digital connectivity.
Mr Hosking - also the Victorian Farmers Federation vice-president and president of the lobby group’s grains committee - hopes elected representatives are also listening intently to the message.
The young, fifth generation farmer from Victoria’s Mallee region joined about 20 other lobby group representatives at Parliament House in Canberra this week to let federal politicians know how they feel about the digital drought facing regional Australians.
“The key message is telecommunications and digital connectivity in rural Australia are not working and are failing the pub test – that’s the easiest way to put it,” he said.
“The nbn hasn’t provided the solution that we hoped it would provide and on top of that we have challenges with mobile blackspots.
“If you’re a rural customer, relying on satellite nbn, what we know, from what our growers are telling us, is that it’s failing the pub test.
“They’re getting drop outs, it’s slow and it’s just not delivering where they need it to deliver.
“We keep getting these promises that it’s going to get better and that we’re going to see a change but it hasn’t delivered as yet so we really need to speed-up that delivery because it has taken a long time to get where we are.”
Mr Hosking said regional Australia’s poor digital connectivity carried an opportunity cost of about 10 to 15 per cent for the agricultural sector; a line that’s sure to prick the ears of Nationals leader and Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce.
He said the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) recently forecast the gross value of farm production to hit about $64 billion in 2016-17 which could have been $10b to $20b higher with better digital services.
“There are huge opportunities out there in agriculture that we’re just not capitalising on,” he said.
“ABARES came out with a $64b agricultural output forecast for the year and that’s a great number which shows just how good our growers are and given a favourable season, they’ll take advantage of that.
“But whilst we’re celebrating that number, maybe we also need to consider it could have been so much better and could have started with a seven or eight, if connectivity problems were solved already.
“With the advances in technology that are already sitting out there, 10-15pc is probably a lazy estimate and that’s huge for agricultural productivity and output.”
Over two days this week, the regional, rural and remote communications coalition was set to meet about 50 federal parliamentarians to tell them about the inequity created by inadequate mobile phone network coverage and unreliable and limited internet connectivity, in regional Australia.
Top of the coalition’s communications wish-list is having a universal service obligation (USO) that’s technology neutral and provides access to both voice and data.
Mr Hosking said the USO was time-sensitive with federal parliament due to consider potential changes recommended by a Productivity Commission review.
He said when Telstra was privatised the huge infrastructure network - built and paid for by the taxpayer for the taxpayer - adopted the USO to ensure every customer was connected to the private network.
The Commission’s review draft findings say data should be included in the USO - but unfortunately they’ve paired that recommendation to the nbn which isn’t performing adequately, he said.
“We believe changes should be made to the USO and voice and data should be included and it should be technology neutral,” he said.
“If the copper line is all that you can have at your place, and that’s what works, it should be maintained - but if mobile connectivity, wireless nbn or whatever works as well, then that should also be taken into consideration and we need a standard for data.
“Given we’ve moved into this world where everything’s digital and cloud based or data driven, we need a minimum standard for Telcos to provide to rural customers in particular, which takes drop-outs into account.”
Mr Hosking said the poor standard of rural telecommunications was the biggest issue Victorian grain farmers and other producers spoke-up about, consistently.
“It’s affecting them from a safety perspective; it’s affecting them from an education perspective; and it’s affecting them from a health care perspective,” he said.
“But for agriculture, it’s actually costing us productivity and in a changing climate, we can’t afford to be losing productivity anywhere.
“We need to be looking at these problems and ways to make communications competitive in rural areas and available to everyone.”
“We know it’s an infrastructure problem and will cost a lot of money for whoever’s going to be brave enough to tackle it.
“But we also know maintaining the status quo and doing nothing also has opportunity cost, in what we could potentially grow, like jobs and economic output and all those areas that small communities thrive on.
“There’s a huge cost that we’re not realising because we haven’t got the connectivity.”
Mr Hosking said the coalition was also telling politicians the $40 million that’s being put into payphones could be better directed into fixing mobile blackspot issues.