Transcript - Launch of Regional Tech Hub

MARK COULTON:

Okay, look, welcome, everyone.

It’s very good to be here this morning to launch the tech hub.

This is something that has been needed for a long, long time. As someone who lives in regional Australia and has more recently been the Regional Communications Minister, sometimes it’s been a little frustrating that quite often the answers that people are seeking for their telecommunications and connectivity problems are there in front of them, but not everyone is tech savvy and quite often people are languishing with insufficient connectivity and they could have the answer.

I worked for 10 weeks during the pandemic on a Sky Muster satellite, all my Zoom meetings, all my phone calls from my farm at Warialda, and so I know what it’s like working remotely.

So I’m really pleased that we’ve been able to partner up with the National Farmers Federation – I’m joined here today by the President, Fiona Simson, who also knows what it’s like to live on a farm away from direct communications – to set up this Regional Tech Hub which will basically give people access to advice in a straightforward way that they understand that will agnostic as far as brands go but it will be fearless and frank advice on what the options are for their communications.

And Trent’s here behind me, who is one of the tech gurus that people will be able to communicate with through this hub.

We’ve also got Teresa from the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), who are the consumer action network that has done a lot of work over the years to help consumers in regional communications to get to this point.

And the platform will work via online and through, phone calls. Obviously if you’re having trouble connecting to the internet, email or online is not always the best way to communicate for help, so there’ll be a phone line and also a lot of information going out via social media platforms.

The NFF has agreed to take this task on for one year but with an option for two more, and I’m very excited about that because it is not just for farmers.

You don’t need to be a member of the NFF to access this.

This will be for all people who live in regional Australia. And this is on top of a lot of the other work we’re doing with the (mobile) black spot program - Round 5A is open now, the towers that we’ve constructed, the 180 towers that we funded under round 5 have started construction, the Regional Connectivity Program which recently closed that had massive interest.  We’re now working through those submissions to fund innovative ways to deliver communications to regional Australia.

I’ll now hand over to Fiona Simson, the President of the NFF, to say a few words.

FIONA SIMSON:

Thanks, very much, Minister. Fiona Simson, President of the National Farmers Federation and a farmer from the Liverpool Plains of New South Wales, which is certainly in terms of remoteness pretty much in the middle of everywhere and the middle of nowhere.

So I, too, am reliant on good connectivity to conduct not just my farm business but also my role here at NFF during COVID and the other boards that I sit on and just the business of our family.

The NFF has long highlighted that connectivity, access to the connectivity, is going to unlock enormous benefits for agriculture. And I think it’s not just the connectivity but it’s also the smarts to actually work out how to actually use that connectivity effectively and ways, plain English ways, to actually make it work for you in your particular situation.

Australia, rural and regional Australia, is hugely diverse, not just in terms of agriculture but also in terms of our communities. And we know that as with many of the issues facing rural and regional Australia there’s just not one thing that’s going to fix it for everybody and the situation can change completely depending on whether you’re in Bendigo or whether you’re in Broome.

It’s really important that not only do we keep working on getting those, as the Minister said, better connectivity and better access to digital services through wi-fi, through Sky Muster -- and it’s been good to see some of those services improve so much over the last 12 months and more as we’ve continued to work on this over a long time now – but the other part of the equation is people having access to help when they need it.

It’s a very confusing space. Digital technology is moving so quickly. There are so many providers offering so many deals.

People have so many different services at their location. And so this sort of helpline, this basic help that the Regional Tech Hub, is offering has been something that has been identified as being sorely needed for so long if we are in agriculture to unlock those $20 billion worth of benefits – it’s really going to help us get to that $100 billion in agricultural production by 2030 – but also, as the Minister said, in rural and regional communities.

Rural and regional communities absolutely need to be connected just as much as their city cousins. They need to realise the benefits of connectivity, and these are the things that are going to drive not just growth in those centres but also the way of life as we are moving now increasingly to a digital way of life.

So the tech hub, it’s going to provide a helpline, it’s going to provide a website, and people are going to be on the other end of the phone when people are tearing their hair out and not knowing what to do, not knowing which service provider to ring, not knowing what sort of bandwidth they need and people start talking about all the things that are so confusing for just normal people going about their business.

So, we hope that this tool is actually going to make it work for farmers and for rural and regional Australia. So, we thank the government for the partnership. We really look forward to being able to deliver this out across the whole of regional Australia and we are sure that it will provide really on-the-ground help and benefits to people who really badly need it at the moment across rural and regional Australia to make that digital connectivity work for everyone. Thank you so much. Thanks, Minister.

MARK COULTON:

Thanks, Fiona. This hub will pick up the banner, if you like, from what advocacy groups have been doing for some time – primarily Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Remote Australia, which has been fielding thousands and thousands of calls – and advocacy groups like ACCAN who have been central in helping a lot of people.

Ultimately one of the reasons that the Federal Government decided to do this and actually partner with the NFF was to ease the burden from advocacy groups like ACCAN.

I will ask Teresa (ACCAN CEO), if you’d like to say a few words as well.

TERESA CORBIN:

Thanks, Minister. So, Teresa Corbin from the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network.

We are a national organisation that represents small consumers, residential consumers and small business.

We also work closely with the National Farmers Federation and with the Rural, Regional and Remote Communications Coalition, which is a group of 21 rural and regional organisations that have worked very hard to make communications more assessable and more available for all Australians.

So, we’re very pleased to be part of this launch today and the Regional Tech Hub.

We are working very closely with National Farmers to provide content and advice. And that’s where I really want at the focus today because it’s great to have lots more choices and lots more option, but unless you have the actual information available to you, then you really may as well not have those choices and options at all.

People in rural, regional and remote Australia have been calling out for better communications for a long time, and this Regional Tech Hub really shows that the government is putting that as a high priority.

I also want to acknowledge Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Remote Australia, the group that has really worked via social media to build a large following of people trying to resolve their technical issues on a volunteer basis for more than five years.

They are really the driving force behind this new Regional Tech Hub, and we’re really pleased that now we’ll be able to provide it on a more sustainable, ongoing basis and that the information can be checked and vetted and supported not just by other government but also by the telecommunications industry.

One of the things that’s really difficult for regional people is that once they get connected, staying connected can also be very challenging.

And so sometimes it could be very simple solutions, and we’re very pleased that the help desk will be available for people to contact them and to resolve these issues.

Because staying connected now is absolutely vital. You can’t do anything without a communications service. We are all reliant on our broadband.

The pandemic has brought that home to people in metropolitan areas, but these are issues that rural, regional and remote Australians have been facing for a long time and getting connected, staying connected can be confusing and it can be complicated, and that’s why we need specialised information and specialised resources put in plain language with no jargon so that people can continue on their daily lives doing important work, getting educated, doing their banking, running their businesses.

And the advice that they’ll be able to get will be anything from how to connect to an NBN Sky Muster satellite service, how to boost a mobile signal or even just how to connect any internet-connected device on their properties.

And so, once again, I also1) like to thank the government for supporting this initiative and also congratulate NFF for driving this forward and getting to this point for the launch. We’re really looking forward to being able to give the number out and to direct consumers to this new resource. So thank you very much.

MARK COULTON:

Thanks, Teresa. Finally I’d just like to thank the NFF for stepping up and taking this challenge on.

I’m looking forward to working with you, and I know that the helpline is going to be the new best friend of many, many people.

Quite often technology is daunting for people. It’s probably one of the skills that we’ve left to the younger generation, and when they’re not around you need someone else’s younger generation to give you the advice.

Any questions?

JAMIESON MURPHY:

Minister, a lot of the time with these government initiatives it’s hard to see the immediate impact. Was the focus on this making it a practical solution that will work straight away?

MARK COULTON:

That’s exactly right. And, as I said, it’s sort of following on from the concept that was started off by other adversary groups, particularly BIRRR.

So, yes, it will be immediately available.

I think the challenge probably will be to get that known to the people that actually need it the most.

Because quite often the people who need this help aren’t following Twitter, they’re not on Facebook, and so quite often the challenge is to connect to those people who don’t normally live in that world.

So that will be a challenge, but I’m sure word of mouth will be the one that gets it around, you know, once people get a good result.

JAMIESON MURPHY:

And you mentioned it’s going for a year with an option of another two.

MARK COULTON:

Yes.

JAMIESON MURPHY:

If this is such a vital need, why not just go for the three years straight up?

MARK COULTON:

Well, we’ve funded for three years. And that’s more to do with seeing how it works and making sure that the NFF are happy to continue on in that role.

But certainly, if everyone’s going as we expect it to, we’ve funded it for three years. Thank you.