The excitement evident in political and bureaucratic circles about the imminent launch of new telecommunications satellites that it is claimed will dramatically improve internet access for Australians living in regional areas is probably not matched on the ground by those destined to be recipients of the new service, based on previous experience.
Under the current National Broadband Network plan, many people who live in regional Australia and who currently have inadequate or non-existent internet access or mobile phone coverage will at least be able to obtain improved internet access via satellite, once the soon-to-be launched satellites are in place.
Those people who in the past were encouraged to utilise satellite telecommunication services could be forgiven for listening to the promises of imminent high-quality connectiveness with a large grain of salt.
Previous promises about the wonders of satellite internet were dashed when the reality of the service standard offered became evident. Retailers invariably oversold bandwidth, so the initial promising service standards quickly declined to glacial access speeds and in many cases failed altogether. It got to the point where some users would click on their bank’s internet front page in the morning before work, in the vain hope that the page would be loaded by lunchtime! This was, of course, on those days when cloud cover or other factors had not completely interrupted the service, and as long as the user’s home was in a location where reasonable line of sight to the satellite was possible.
And just to be clear, many of those forced to rely on the use of satellite internet services were not in remote outback locations with sparse population densities. Those unable to obtain any alternative broadband internet access included many people living only twenty or thirty kilometres from major regional centres with populations of 100,000 or more people.
It is to be hoped that the two new satellites will be a vast improvement on past satellite services, but unless the satellite service is also quickly supplemented with dramatically improved mobile phone coverage in regional areas, Australian agriculture faces the very real risk that it will be consigned to a technological backwater, with farmers unable to utilise many of the newer digital technologies that are providing the agriculture sector with the next big steps forward in productivity.
As an example, in the US corn belt it is estimated that approximately 40% of corn growers (accounting for around 70% of corn acerage) are now utilising variable-rate planting and spreading equipment to sow and manage corn crops at the square metre rather than the paddock scale. The reason they have adopted this technology is that it can provide up to 15% productivity gains over management at the paddock average. It does, however, require good mobile phone coverage in order to be fully implemented, as it relies on digital mapping and GPS-enabled control systems to manage the variable rates of sowing and fertiliser application within a single paddock. The technology can be used in Australia, although often it requires farmers to install their own telecommunications technology, at considerable cost, in order to enable the degree of GPS accuracy required to successfully implement the systems.
As a second example, a Melbourne company is now rolling out water surveillance systems for large-scale cattle operations in northern Australia. These enable cattle farmers to check the status of all their water troughs and tanks from an application on their mobile phone, and also to receive alerts when the flow of water into those tanks or troughs is interrupted. This can be a critical issue in summer months when stock may not survive more than twenty four hours without water. The productivity gains that are possible using this technology are enormous, but are obviously enhanced if there is good mobile phone coverage available. Farmers can get around this by setting up their own local VHF radio network and linking that in to the mobile phone network if there is a point on the farm where mobile coverage is available, but the benefits of the technology are greatly diminished in the absence of mobile phone coverage, and the costs significantly increased.
The very real risk facing rural and regional Australia is that the bureaucrats and politicians will assume that the enhanced satellite coverage that will soon be offered will ‘solve’ the telecommunications problems of the bush, and that further internet or mobile phone coverage enhancement will not be necessary. The reality, unfortunately, is that the enhanced satellite coverage may provide some farm households with improved fixed internet access, but will do little to meet the rapidly expanding need for enhanced mobile telecommunications coverage in the bush, to secure the promise of substantial productivity gains that are becoming available.