Digital agriculture and connectivity


David Lamb
SMART Farm Project Manager
University of New England (UNE)

Tim O’Leary
Chief Sustainability Officer

Q1.  New developments in agriculture, including farm machinery that has the capacity to be constantly connected to the internet and to exchange information in real time, and autonomous machinery that relies on reliable data connections, have the capacity to dramatically improve productivity in the sector. However, the sector is currently not able to take advantage of some of these developments due to poor connectivity, leaving Australian farmers lagging behind their international competitors. How can Australian agriculture best ensure it is not left behind due to poor connectivity?

David Lamb, UNE

In terms of farm operation, connectivity goes beyond office internet connectivity. Many on-farm decisions are made outside of the office (eg on the tractor, in the paddock or in the yards) and the information used to base the decisions is derived from within the farm itself, and based on data extracted from the soil, plants, animals and machinery.

The boundaries between within-farm and external connectivity are no longer distinct and it’s no longer just about mobile phone or National Broadband Network (NBN) connectivity either. It’s also about radio links and even accessing some of the satellite-direct Internet of Things innovations. Speaking to producers around Australia who have succeeded in this space, there appear as many on-farm telecommunications ‘innovations’ and potential solutions as there are farms.

Activities like the Productivity Commission’s data access inquiry, and of course the ACCC mobile roaming inquiry, are all important steps in shaping up the country to meet the rapidly evolving connectivity needs of farmers. But there is also the issue of spectrum management; freeing up segments currently redundant to the needs of existing spectrum holders, for innovative businesses to offer farmers solutions to fill that ‘last hundred metres.’ 

Tim O’Leary, Telstra
The use of digital technologies in agriculture has grown at a rapid rate over the past decade and is likely to continue along that path over the coming decade. But providing ubiquitous connectivity to farms is a challenge across much of the globe, including in Australia, particularly for farms that cover large unpopulated and remote areas (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Producer use of precision technologies over time (average % of market).

Source:  Purdue University (2015), Precision Agricultural Services Dealership Survey Results.

To ensure the potential of precision digital agriculture is realised, farms need appropriate bandwidth connectivity at a reasonable cost. Mobile satellite internet is available now but it is expensive, does not offer fast data rates and the signal can fade during rain, while local area network solutions require regular maintenance and can be complex and difficult to run.

The best technology for meeting farm connectivity requirements is mobile network coverage. It provides capacity for the basic safety of farm workers through to the operation of the most sophisticated precision agriculture tools with carrier-grade data security, and all at standard national rates that ensure remote users pay no more than people in the cities.

Australian agricultural communities can ensure mobile connectivity expands as quickly as possible across Australian farmland by promoting investment and innovation while actively opposing regulation to mandate roaming between networks, which would destroy the incentive for carriers to invest in delivering new technology and coverage. Local communities can also work together to influence the amount and location of government co-investment in mobile network improvements, including by encouraging third party co-investment.

Q2.  The Universal Service Obligation (USO) ensures that all Australians have equitable access to standard ‘copper wire’ telephone services. Should the Universal Service Obligation be reframed to ensure the equitable access of all Australians to digital and data services?

David Lamb, UNE

Yes and it needs to accommodate cellular communications. But it doesn’t have to be that scary. Firstly, what do we mean by ‘Universal Service’ today, and does it carry the same meaning now as it was when first coined? Why not focus on offering a uniform baseline coverage; not physical access into venues, but, say based on open air signal strength offered at a certain height above ground (eg 30 metres). Then, let the market place offer solutions to blast it inside the venues and let the network operators offer refinements in terms of background network speed and capacity (eg some of the beam forming innovations we are hearing more about) to differentiate themselves? If we start with a different end in mind, say based on physical rather than people-based principles of accessibility, then we could redefine the name as well as the contents.

Tim O’Leary, Telstra

Strictly speaking the USO does not mandate ‘copper wire’ connections for universal service provision (although Telstra is currently required to maintain such active copper connections as currently exist). Other technologies, including fixed wireless network connections, can and should be used to deliver USO services where their use is more efficient and appropriate than copper.

The NBN has a mandate to provide a high-speed internet connection to every premise in Australia, regardless of geography. In most cases – perhaps all cases – the NBN data service will support good-quality telephone calls. Once the rollout is complete, the NBN will provide the infrastructure necessary for retailers to supply phone and internet services to everyone.

In Telstra’s view the Federal Government should formalise this ‘universal infrastructure’ role for the NBN so that its existing general ubiquitous coverage mandate is complemented by a specific obligation to provide infrastructure at any premise on request. This, along with revision of the various technical consumer quality regulations, should replace the existing USO once the NBN has been fully rolled out.

Q3.  Increasingly, on-farm connectivity is being provided commercially by innovative local area network solutions. One of the challenges with such solutions is that if the service that provides the link between the farm and the internet has limited capacity or reliability, then it severely limits the viability of the on-farm system. How can farmers be sure that any investment they make to provide on-farm connectivity is not compromised by the quality of the service linking the farm to the internet?

David Lamb, UNE

It is acknowledged that ISPs, for example, can sometimes get trapped between users and network operators for technical constraints outside of their control. This can be critical if the system being offered/used is related to safety of life or security (eg asset monitoring against theft). Who compensates? We need to develop simple processes whereby service providers establish service level agreements (for a fee if necessary) with network operators around what they consider is necessary in order for them to provide the system ‘advertised on the box.’

Tim O’Leary, Telstra

Remote locations are most economically provided with internet service by satellite technology, which is why the most remote few percent of Australian premises will be offered NBN satellite services. But satellite bandwidth is limited – far more so than NBN services provided over fixed-line or fixed-wireless technology. Such satellite bandwidth limitations could in some cases be the ‘bottleneck’ that prevents local area networks operating at full capacity, even when care is taken to ensure limited bandwidth is reserved for time-critical data transfer.

If alternative infrastructure (such as mobile, fixed line or fixed wireless) is available, farmers can address satellite bandwidth limitations by encouraging their broadband provider to continue investing in alternative infrastructure, including by supporting regulatory and policy settings that facilitate further investment. They can also encourage mobile operators to provide mobile infrastructure to their locations by supporting co-investment programs like the Mobile Black Spot Programme and encouraging or participating in private co-investment opportunities.