TELECOMMUNICATION has become critical to agriculture productivity, but savvy reform to bridge the often frustrating gap between producer and reliable digital solution is required.
University of New England McClymont Distinguished Professor David Lamb says Australia needs “a three way wake-up call” to make the necessary changes to capture the benefits of precision agriculture.
Professor Lamb’s wake up calls spell out the need for: readily available access to information on infrastructure (on locations of mobile towers or underground cables); industry groups like Rural Development Corporations (RDCs) to bridge the extension gap and educate farmers about digital opportunities; service providers to prioritise improvement to connection speeds.
“Farmers have practiced precision ag for 20 years now,” Prof. Lamb said.
“They can see the value in accessing digital connectivity to improve decision-making. I have come across farmers that don’t blink at paying $40,000, even up to $100,000 for telecommunications solutions.
“But need to know what their options are, how to choose the right access model and they want to make sure it’s reliable.”
Prof. Lamb authored a comprehensive report Accelerating precision agriculture to decision agriculture. It is part of a broader program under the same name which is aimed at public policy development.
Lead by the Australian Farm Institute, the program is funded by a partnership between Australia’s 15 rural research and development corporations.
Prof. lamb said although many are “focused on bashing telcos” over poor performance, the industry is showing hopeful signs.
“The major telcos are waking up to the fact they can play a major role in solving problems here, and they really are looking at ag relevant solutions.
“But the problem is farmers are so pissed off. So telcos really have to bite the bullet and focus on trust-building.
“That means second tier companies are jumping in - but they are the new kids on block - here today, gone tomorrow. While they’re doing a good job to fill gaps in the market, the question is will they be around long enough to make their offering worthwhile?”
Incentives, or investment mechanisms, to encourage investment in telecommunications should be considered, Prof. lamb said.
“We’ve got a data drought so let’s get serious. Are doing enough to help farmers help themselve? Perhaps we should look at tax concessions to encourage take-up.”
Prof. Lamb’s first of his three wake-up calls is for government to make its information on telecommunications infrastructure readily available and easy to understand.
“ACMA (the Australian Communications and Media Authority) sits on a wonderful public database, but it is difficult to manage,” Prof. Lamb said.
“It was difficult to assemble the information, but we found that for 80,000 property locations, when overlaid on government data, that two-thirds have a boundary within 10 kilometers of a mobile tower, an exchange or some telecommunications link.
“This data needs to be readily accessible for everyone, especially to the market so they can plan how best to bridge that last gap. It would open farmer's eyes’ to what is nearby, and help telcos to develop solutions to tap into nearby infrastructure.”
Prof . Lamb’s second wake-up call is to RDCs.
“RDCs are not network builders, but they can join the dots in what I call the extension gap between telcos and farmers.
“We surveyed 1000 producers, and more than half told us they knew there were telecommunications solutions they should look at, but they don’t know how to access them.
“We need demonstration farms and curated case studies to build awareness of solutions and grow farmers’ enthusiasm.
“For example, I sat in on a service provider which was working out deal with a farmer. He didn’t understand the technical stuff like frequency, and the size of the dish. The telco guys know all about it, but they often struggle to retail the concepts.”
Prof. Lamb’s third target area is speed of internet connections.
“Farm businesses need speed. Anything less than 1 megabit per second drive people insane.
“The NBN (National Broadband Network) offers a powerful potential solution to the problem, but we need to consider how the service provision is calculated.
“Currently, it's based on the residence. But the NBN might be going to a farmhouse that is on a property the size of the ACT (Australian Capital Territory), with outcamps and staff quarters that could be 10km from the house.
“We have to rethink how we provide access the the NBN, and if it should include multiple points of access based on property size, topography and so on.”