Doorstop interview, Gunning NSW, regional connectivity

SENATOR DEBORAH O’NEILL, SENATOR FOR NEW SOUTH WALES: I’m Senator Deborah O’Neill, Senator for New South Wales and Duty Senator for the seat of Hume where we are today. I’m delighted to be here with the Minister for an announcement. But first, can I just make a couple of comments to those who are really feeling the impact of the floods. We are really mindful of that. And, in fact, right here in Gunning we’ve heard this morning from the Medway family that the local community has been impacted just in the last 24 hours. Support is there for people who need support. It’s easy to find that information, if you can get access to the internet, and find out about the support that the government is offering at Federal and State level. And, of course, we stand ready to support the local people of all those regions who have been impacted by floods. 

But the purpose for our visit to the Medway Farm here just outside Gunning today is for a very significant announcement by the Minister for Communications, my good friend Michelle Rowland. I’m delighted to be with her today because this is an investment that is going to be fantastic for the development of agribusiness right across the nation. Over to you, Michelle. 

MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Thank you, Senator. Thank you to the Medway family for having us here today for two really important announcements that fulfil the election commitments that we took to the Australian people in terms of providing greater on-farm connectivity solutions and also, advice to agribusiness on how to utilise those solutions. 

The first is a $6 million commitment for the Regional Tech Hub. This is a great institution to get advice on connectivity devices and other ways in which they can use enhanced connectivity and technology to improve their on-farm connectivity. 

The second is a $30 million commitment to improve on-farm connectivity. We know that by using these enhanced technologies, GDP, the productivity of the farm sector, can increased by some $20 billion. That is a great boon for our food and fibre producers, but also for our economy at large. 

What it means can be a number of factors. It can be enhanced connectivity for actual mobile or other services and also the installation of the kit to support those services. Just as a very practical example, this can be a repeater that makes a mobile signal go further from the farmhouse to the fields. 

The second is in terms of devices and the services around those devices. Those devices are sometimes commonly available right now at hardware stores. But what we are going to be doing is providing a means by which these become cheaper and thereby more available to our food and fibre producers. 

It’s great to be working on this with the National Farmers Federation (NFF). I’m very grateful for their input to date. We will be consulting about the scope of the program, the guidelines around it but in the end, this is all about the consumer – in this case, our great farmers who are doing such a fantastic job for our economy. 

We know that the nature of farming has changed so much even in the last decade. You even have to look just at the cover of the Regional Telecommunications Inquiry Report to see a large farm vehicle and a farmer with an open laptop. The use of ICT for on-farm productivity has never been more exciting or greater. I think that this is a really important step forward to show what can be done with this enhanced technology, how it can be utilised and how different types of farming skills can be made better and more productive depending upon individual needs. 

So, Jen, very grateful to you. You’re obviously very involved by heading up the Regional Tech Hub. Great to hear from you and Chris about how this program will really help your members. Again, thank you for your all your work in this area. 

JEN MEDWAY, MANAGER OF THE REGIONAL TECH HUB AND FARM OWNER: Thank you very much, Minister. So on behalf of my husband and I, I would really love to welcome. Thank you to everybody but also to Minister Rowland and also Senator O’Neill for taking the time to come out. Because it really is genuinely a need in regional Australia, particularly on farm, if we’re looking to grab that $20 billion which will head us towards the $100 billion that we’re aiming there. Digital connectivity is absolutely critical. And this funding is absolutely an opportunity for us not just on our farm here. We’re fifth generation farmers and we’re certainly looking to adopt more and more technology. So connectivity solutions are absolutely critical to that. 

And I could just see – well, we’ve a tractor behind us, but there are lots of different ways that we’re looking to use the connectivity and use agtech to increase our productivity, to make our labour more efficient but also to ensure that we are really sustainable, and the way that we capture and measure that is really important to our business and something that we’re very much focused on at the moment. 

So thank you very much. I think this funding will be a game-changer for people in farming particularly but also in regional areas. I also wear a second hat as the Regional Tech Hub, so I manage the program under the National Farmers Federation (NFF) and work closely with the Minister and her team and the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts. So we work very closely with the department in terms of delivering a really quality product and service to people in regional areas. 

One of the things that we often get approached by is the complexity of the language, the complexity of technology and the words and the options and the solutions. And what I think is really important and exciting for people regional Australia is that we have moved past the concept of the government needs to fix everything. There are solutions, which is brilliant, but cutting through the technology literacy issue, cutting through sort of the complexity of what’s available is something that we can help with. 

And I’m really proud to be part of this program, particularly under the National Farmers Federation. I’m again working closely with the Minister and her team in terms of delivering a really quality service for regional Australia. 

CHRIS YOUNG, NATIONAL FARMERS' FEDERATION: Good morning, everyone. Can I also thank the Minister and the Senator for joining us here today. Of course, Jen and the family here at Hillcrest, really great to be here during a busy time as well, shearing in full swing. Look on behalf of – I’m here on behalf of the National Farmers Federation, and I just want to extend our thanks to the government for the programs that are being announced today. They’ve both been outlined well. 

So the $30 million program will be incredibly important to help farmers right across Australia. And I think the Minister said it well – there’s a couple of parts to it. It will help farmers overcome some of those primary connectivity challenges that still remain. Importantly, it’s going to be really important to allow Australian farmers to really grasp the technological advancements that are there waiting to underpin productivity for the sector. Australian farmers are doing that already, and a program like this helps accelerate that. So, we look forward to continuing to work with the government to roll that out. We’ve worked with them to date on that as well. And we thank them for that. 

And, look, on the Regional Tech Hub, it is a wonderful initiative led exceptionally well by Jen and her team. And the government made a commitment to continue the funding of that, which we’re seeing today, a long while ago. And we really appreciate that ongoing commitment. That tech hub has helped thousands of people in regional Australia, not just farmers. And it’s making a real difference in their lives, from their ability to access primary health, education services as well as allowing them to engage with those opportunities I just outlined in agtech, in farm technology. And the commitment to continue that going will do nothing but build the momentum that we’ve seen there. And we look really forward to expanding that hub and we’re really excited. And Australian farmers are really excited to see how that goes over the coming years. Thank you. 

JOURNALIST: So, Minister, are you able to just take me through what the rollout of this investment will look like? 

ROWLAND: Sure, the first component will be for connectivity. That will be the kit that provides that enhanced underlying communications service and also [indistinct]. The second part is in terms of devices. So if you have individual devices – some of them are big, some are small – but they can be also quite bespoke to the needs of the farmer. So they can everything from sensors that measure everything from soil to energy that’s being generated through solar panels. 

Just to give you a really practical example as well, it’s one of the best examples and makes a lot of sense, you might have on a very large property a water tank that is really difficult to get to, maybe hours and hours away. Utilising some of this smart technology and utilising the connectivity you can actually have a sensor that tells you when that water tank is 75 per cent full [indistinct]. So rather than having to go out there and check it there is a farm system that tells you that something is wrong. That time saved is also possibly a safety issue as well, depending on the type of farm. 

The second part of that device component are the services around the devices. So, for example, if you have a device that’s connected to an app, again, a great example that was demonstrated to me was you could be measuring the weight and the spread of particular livestock at any given point in time. So depending on where they are, you’re able to measure how they’re going. Some of them, if the weight starts dropping, you might be able to indicate whether or not there’s something wrong with the feeders. So those sorts of really practical types of solutions can be really important for farmers. 

What we’re looking at right now with funding in the Budget, we are designing this program. We’ve had consultation with the Farmers Federation. We’re going to send that out to wider consultation. But ultimately this is how we make both the connectivity and the devices more affordable and more accessible for people who would like to utilise them. 

JOURNALIST: They were talking about black spots with service earlier. Are there certain areas that sort of need boosting for connectivity a bit more than others? 

ROWLAND: Well, depending on where a farm is located and where a base station is and the size of a property, that can be really problematic because without that connectivity these devices can’t be utilised. So, again, it depends on the particular farm, the particular property and the location. 

I should also point out that we have significant investments in this Budget going towards black spots to alleviate those, particularly on major routes and highways. We also have announced as part of the budget a $2.4 billion investment to increase fibre capacity for up to one and a half million premises around Australia. 660,000 of those premises will be in the regions. That builds on our nearly half a billion dollars in funding for the fixed wireless network to improve the technology there. And that, in turn, will have enhancements for the satellite services that people in regional Australia utilise.

JOURNALIST: And then with the floods recently, will this in any way sort of help farmers in situations like that? 

ROWLAND: I think there are particular circumstances of these smart technologies that do go to safety. Some of those are readily available, but some of those may be more bespoke as well. 

JOURNALIST: A few questions for Jen. Before we get into [indistinct], can you take me through some challenges around connectivity before this? 

MEDWAY: Yeah, absolutely. So we were just pointing out before, at our house we spent about $2,000 trying to improve and boost our service. Just the shearing shed just behind us, which is about 20 metres away, there is literally no service. What that means is that when we’re attaching all our agtech infrastructure we actually have to use USB dongles and other things to take up to the house to get that to download to send it off to our suppliers. 

So it even actually increases even more when we actually get out into the paddocks. So it’s a lot more hit and miss. So it actually impacts where we build infrastructure, what technology we adopt out there and basically how we sort of set our infrastructure up to take advantage of the agtech opportunities but equally not lose that connection and have to bring everything back to the house, which kind of defeats the purpose in some ways. But it’s amazing where it’s going, particularly some of the sensors that the Minister was talking about. 

So they’re the things that we’re absolutely working with. We have a soil moisture probe sitting up on the hill, and that basically gives us lots of information. And there are some different types of systems, so [indistinct] system helps us run that. And the IT network that we’re working with Telstra on at the moment, there are some options there. It’s just a case of tapping into them and knowing they exist. And I think that’s probably one of the biggest gaps at the moment, is particularly people on farm, we don’t have a good understanding of what’s available and how we can do that. 

And I’m in the Regional Tech Hub and I’m still learning things. So definitely, I guess, building awareness around what’s available is probably the key at this stage for us. 

JOURNALIST: And just on the business side of things, how is this going to be helpful for yourself and other farmers? 

MEDWAY: Yeah, look, so definitely, in terms of productivity some of the technologies that we’re looking to adopt on our farm are game changing. So often we’re looking for the sort of 2 to 3 per cent increases in productivity. But some of the technologies that are coming on will help us go 10 to 15 per cent. And that will not only help us make a greater contribution and produce more for people to eat and clothe themselves, but it also, I guess, helps in terms of sustainability. So we’re really trying to build a sustainable footprint on our farm, and it will especially us definitely measure and report on things much better than what is available at the moment. 

JOURNALIST: Thank you. 

ROWLAND: Thank you so much.