Growing a Digital Future for Australian Agriculture National Forum

The Australian Government understands the importance of connectivity for all Australians, and is committed to improving communications services in regional and remote Australia.

Fast, reliable and affordable broadband in regional communities is already enabling business efficiencies, transforming the delivery of services, and creating new industries.

Through the course of its review last year, the Regional Telecommunications Independent Review Committee heard many examples of how connectivity is improving the lives of people right across the country.

For example, the Sense-T project in Tasmania was a first mover in the internet of things and big data.  This project brought together researchers, industry, government and the community to foster innovation.

One project that uses the Sense-T platform is the Adaptive Water Resources Management' project, which provided farmers with real-time information on the Ringarooma catchment in Tasmania.

The project used sensor technology and machine learning to display continuously updated data streams from many locations in the catchment area, including predictions of river flows, daily rainfall and evaporation.

This meant that farmers were able to work together to reduce extractions and to release water from private storage dams into the river to maintain healthy levels at critical times.

This was a win-win: saving water and avoiding further stress on the environment during a dry summer.

As we have heard today, the Australian agricultural sector has set a course for Australian farms to produce $100 billion by 2030, and they need the connectivity to get there.

Of course, for a country the size of Australia, connectivity comes with its own unique challenges, and connecting every home and business is no small feat.

I'd like to take a few moments to run through how the Government is responding to these challenges.

The National Broadband Network

The NBN is the Government's most significant investment in regional connectivity, and we have prioritised its roll-out in regional Australia.

Almost all premises in regional Australia now have access to the network or construction is underway.

Regional Australia is being served by a combination of fixed-line, fixed wireless and, for the more difficult-to-serve premises, the Sky Muster satellite service.

According to the 2018 Connecting Australia report by AlphaBeta, business growth in NBN-connected regions accelerated at five times the pace of regions without the NBN.

The NBN is forecast to drive up to $5.3 billion in additional gross domestic product and help create up to 20,000 additional jobs in regional Australia by 2021.

To meet the growing demand in remote and regional Australia, NBN Co has recently launched the Sky Muster Plus service, to provide regional Australians with access to more data.

The use of essential internet services such as online banking, email and software updates will not count towards a consumer's data allowance when they use the Sky Muster Plus service.

I am personally focused on increasing uptake of the Sky Muster satellite service.

While previous NBN interim satellite had capacity issues, the Sky Muster satellite offers an excellent service, and I use myself.

I encourage anyone in a Sky Muster area who has not yet taken up the service to try it.

Government response to the 2018 Regional Telecommunications Review

As Minister for Regional Services, one of my key priorities is the delivery of the Government's response to the Regional Telecommunications Review.

This includes the Government's $220 million Stronger Regional Connectivity Package, announced on 20 March 2019.

This package includes:

  • $160 million for two new rounds of the highly successful Mobile Black Spot Program.
  • $60 million for a new Regional Connectivity Program

This Regional Connectivity Program includes:

  • A $53 million competitive grant program to address local telecommunications priorities in regional, rural and remote areas.
  • A ‘digital tech hub' to address and improve digital literacy.
  • Funding for trials of alternative voice technologies for Australians who live in the most remote parts of the country
  • Funding to investigate better ways to deliver the Universal Service Guarantee, particularly for the delivery of voice services in regional Australia.

Mobile Black Spot Program:

The Government has committed $380 million to improve mobile coverage in regional areas through six rounds of the Mobile Black Spot Program.

The first four rounds of this Program have already generated a total investment of over $760 million, when co-contributions from the States and mobile network operators are included.

These four rounds are funding the delivery of 1,047 new mobile base stations.

As of today, 744 new base stations have been activated and are delivering real benefits to Australian communities.

Round 5 is currently open for applications, with a closing date of 26 September.

Regional Connectivity Program:

As I've noted earlier, the Regional Connectivity Program is an important component of the Government's response to the Regional Telecommunications Review.

The Program includes $53 million for a competitive grants program for telecommunications infrastructure projects of high economic, public safety or social value in regional areas.

More and more essential services are operating on a digital-first model, from online banking and business services, to education and government services.

In this environment, where internet access is fast becoming a prerequisite to participation, those who are not connected, whether due to a lack of infrastructure or digital ability, are at a disadvantage.

The rollout of the NBN will provide a base level of telecommunications services across Australia and the network is nearly complete outside urban areas.

However, the challenges of geography and scale in our regions means there is a need for the network to be complemented in some areas.

The Regional Connectivity Program grants will target investment to local priorities that improve economic and social outcomes for individual regional communities.

There are innovative digital applications available right now that will have an immediate and positive impact on regional Australia, if the right connectivity is available.

Agriculture and tourism are two examples of sectors that can benefit from better connectivity connections.

As the modelling from the Accelerating precision agriculture to decision agriculture (P2D) report shows, digital agriculture could boost the value of Australian agricultural production by $20.3 billion, and the greatest gains are expected to come from automation and environmental benefits, such as water savings.

The types of projects that could be supported through the Regional Connectivity Program include the development of enterprise-grade broadband networks that enable our agricultural sector to use the latest applications and technologies.

This includes sensor networks, robotics and drone imagery, to maximise production and manage pest and disease risks in key production areas.

There is also an opportunity under the program to expand tourism as a secondary industry in wine and food production precincts, by upgrading premises from satellite broadband.

Data from Tourism Research Australia shows that in 2016-2017, total consumption by domestic and international visitors was worth nearly $136 billion.  And for every dollar spent by tourists, 43 cents went to regional areas.

Providing reliable broadband will help continue to expand our regional tourism industry, attracting visitors to spend more time and more money in rural and remote areas.

Areas such as the Clare Valley or Hunter Valley wine regions would benefit from improved connectivity by attracting more visitors to the area, and enhancing visitor experiences.

At the Regional Telecommunications Review public consultation in Clare, a number of winemakers and tourism business operators reported they were unable to provide adequate internet access to their visitors and staff.

Located on properties outside the main town, many of the vineyards in the Clare Valley only have access to Sky Muster satellite broadband. They struggled to remain within the allocated data limits and maintain sufficient speeds on their Sky Muster services.

The Regional Connectivity Program creates an opportunity to upgrade premises that surround a regional township from satellite to a different broadband access technology.

With investment from Commonwealth, state and local governments, this would provide the digital connectivity needed to support the growth of the tourism industry for our regions.

A discussion paper on design options for the Regional Connectivity Program was issued on 12 August for public comment.

The Government is now going through the submissions to inform the development of the Program Guidelines.

There will be another opportunity to comment on the design of the program when the Guidelines are released for public consultation in the coming months.

Digital Tech Hub:

In addition to fit-for-purpose infrastructure, digital skills are also essential to realise potential future jobs in regional Australia, and to make sure our regions remain strong and vibrant.

There is an increasing focus from all levels of government, industry and volunteer groups to help Australians to build their digital capabilities.

Having the skills and confidence to navigate the online world can help to overcome economic and social isolation caused by long distances.

For this reason, the Government is developing a Digital Tech Hub, in response to a recommendation of the 2018 Regional Telecommunications Review.

This Hub will provide independent and factual information tailored for regional Australians.

Further information on this Hub will be available in coming months.

Having the right connectivity, and the ability to use it, can enable next generation remote sensing and data processing for agriculture.

Regional Australians are early adopters of technology.  They are using data at an enormous rate in regional businesses in agriculture.

The Government is committed to doing its part and will continue to work with industry and with regional communities to deliver the connectivity that people in the bush need.