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Lack of mobile coverage holds Australian farmers back

Australian farmers are being held back investing in the next generation of 4G linked technology.

The reason is the lack of mobile digital coverage, reliability and speed on the farm, according to CEO Trevor Whittington of WA Farmers. “Investments of the government in mobile coverage could lead to productivity improvements as high as 10%”, he says.

“Only when all farmers have fence to fence mobile coverage will farmers be able to take full advantage of the latest precision ag technology and stay competitive in an ever-tougher international market”, Mr Whittington says.

“All the technology that farmers buy on new machinery – sprayers, headers, seeding equipment – is linked into some sort of data system. “The better the coverage, the more sophisticated the digital equipment and software farmers can use.”

The WA Farmers CEO explains that Western Australia has a massive variation in soils and yield potential for grain production. “Being able to utilise the mega data down to the square centimetre, through to identifying even individual plants and linking it to the cloud in real time, is a big step up from what we are currently working with, which is patchy 3G and 4G coverage. The more effectively you can use your data, the more profitable you will be.”

Mr Whittington finds it staggering that Australia, with a federal budget in 2019-20 of AUS $ 505 billion, has only managed to allocate AUS $ 500 million in five years to improve regional mobile coverage. He emphasises that while AUS $ 51 billion has been spent on a National Broadband Network (NBN) in the country, it is very much focused on fibre optic and satellite links to households.

CEO Trevor Whittington of WA Farmers: "The more effectively you can use your data, the more profitable you will be." Photo: WA Farmers
CEO Trevor Whittington of WA Farmers: "The more effectively you can use your data, the more profitable you will be." Photo: WA Farmers

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“It is a failure that is caused by a political focus that has targeted the vast majority of telecommunications funding to the NBN”, he says. “In the race to build a network capable of providing metropolitan residents with HD Netflix to the living room they have forgotten about the specific needs of the agricultural sector. Almost every farm has been left communicating with the back paddock using CB radio tech from the seventies.”

Competitive Pressure

Grain producers in Western Australia have to work with a marginal yield averaging around 2 tonnes a hectare, Mr Whittington points out. “We have a very high cost of labour”, he says. “And we have long transport distances, very marginal old soils, and one on the fastest drying climates in the world. “The competitive pressure is on. We have to take up new technologies as fast as possible. The efficiencies are there to be gained but many of the latest technologies work best by having a constant high speed 4G link to the cloud.”

Better mobile coverage will improve the ability for farmers to make decisions, get information, communicate and operate large farms, Mr Whittington says. “The average farm in Western Australia is over 3000 hectare, worth 6 to 10 million dollars. The bigger farmers own three, four and five headers, multiple chaser bins and run 100 ton road trains along with farm service vehicles. So it’s a fast moving complex logistics game that works best when you can track every piece of equipment in real time.”

“When you can see everything on your iPad, it just drives the efficiency and improves your productivity. When the harvest moves to the back paddock, often they are down to two-way radios as the means of trying to identify where people are.”

Regional surveys show that mobile coverage across the entire farm is still commonly reported to be poor with too many of the existing towers operating on 3G, which lacks the data carrying capacity of 4G.

“We know that the current network investment is focused on towns and roads which, having been established in the horse and cart days, often situated at the bottom of the hill”, Mr Whittington explains. “An analysis of farm boundaries to mobile network infrastructure found that 66.4 per cent of farms have infrastructure within 10 km, 95.8 per cent within 30 km and 98.4 per cent within 50 km, but as we all know proximity to telecommunications infrastructure does not guarantee access, particularly when there’s a granite hill in the way.”

Knowledge of the gaps

The WA Farmers CEO says that at a national level, there is no centralised knowledge of the gaps in the existing mobile network – either its data carrying capacity or the black spots at the individual hectare level. “Without such basic information on data use and reach, how can connectivity for Australian producers be best addressed and future proofed?”, he asks.

Mr Whittington suggests that the farming sector needs an independent organisation such as the Grains Research and Development Corporation or Agrifutures to undertake a comprehensive review of existing mobile coverage. “A simple app on every farmer’s phone to track the coverage around the paddock, clarifying which hectare has what level of data coverage and speed would help map out where we need to be putting the next towers.”

Regional surveys show that mobile coverage across the entire farm is still commonly reported to be poor with too many of the existing towers operating on 3G. Photo: René Groeneveld
Regional surveys show that mobile coverage across the entire farm is still commonly reported to be poor with too many of the existing towers operating on 3G. Photo: René Groeneveld

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The CEO says that Australia, in addition to 95 per cent coverage of 4G across the entire Australian grain belt, also needs 5G stations in country towns to cover machinery dealerships, grain receival points, sale yards and meat and grain processing facilities. “5G is the future of big data and big data is the future of precision farming.”

Full cost of towers

Mr Whittington estimates that Australia needs around a billion dollars today to lift coverage closer to 95 per cent. “That money would double the number of regional towers across the broadacre grain growing regions”, he says. “Problem is, it’s increasingly difficult to entice carriers to invest in towers in places like outer Moree, Merredin or Mount Hope. Even if the federal government stumped up the funds, they would struggle to find Telcos to provide even 50:50 matching funding, when you are in areas where the average farm size exceeds 10,000 ha with only two or three full time workers.”

The CEO concludes that the government needs to accept that it probably has to cover nearly the full cost of 4 G towers to cover the back paddock. “We should be looking to add that billion dollars to the NBN tab and build a government-owned network of 1,500 additional 4G towers to cover the marginal mobile blackspot areas and build a network of 5G stations to service our broadacre growers.”

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