National Farmer's Federation Conference

I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we meet: the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples and I pay respect to Elders past and present, customs and traditions and extend this to First Nations people here today.

Thank you, for your introduction and to Fiona Simson, Tony Mahar and the National Farmers Federation for inviting me to speak.
 
It would be remiss of me not to begin this afternoon by acknowledging the outstanding contribution of Fiona as the outgoing President of the NFF.

For seven years, you’ve been a fierce advocate for rural and regional Australia.

As a new Communications Minister, I’ve valued your frank advice about the challenges facing regional communities, and positive vision for the agricultural sector.

You leave the NFF on incredibly strong footing, as it continues to drive its 2030 Roadmap under the leadership of incoming President David Jochinke.

Thank you for your leadership, and I wish you well as you move into this next chapter.
 
Introduction

It really is wonderful to be a part of this conference, which brings together farmers, producers, leaders in agribusiness and policy-makers, to discuss the future of agriculture.
 
Many of you have travelled to Canberra to take part – a very good afternoon to you all.
 
I understand that yesterday, my colleague and friend Murray Watt, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, spoke about what our Government is doing to support producers, food security and trade relationships within this sector.
 
For Minister Watt, delivering the best outcomes for our nation’s farming sector is not just his day job.

It is something he is deeply passionate about, and I know he values his constructive engagement with you all.

And indeed, across the entire Cabinet, the Government is focused on delivering a better future for all Australians – including the millions of Australians who live and work in rural, regional and remote communities.
 
Since coming to office, we have been working hard to narrow the digital divide between the cities, suburbs and the bush.
 
In doing so, we’re helping our farmers, producers and regional communities to take advantage of new technology and maintain a competitive global edge.
 
Agriculture has long been a key economic driver for Australia and it’s the lifeblood of our regional and rural communities.
 
Australian farmers export around 72% of the total value of their agricultural, fisheries and forestry production.

So, it’s fitting that the theme of this year’s conference is Taking Australia to the World.
 
Boosting connectivity in the bush 

In 2023, so much of what we do takes place online.

Reliable, fast internet is not a mere convenience.

It is fundamentally essential to the way we live, work, socialise, transact – and even interact with Government.

For that reason, I firmly believe that postcodes and income should be no barrier to accessing world class connectivity.

Our Government recognises the demand for better mobile and broadband coverage in the country, along regional transport routes, and in rural and remote communities.

It’s a concern regularly raised with me as I travel around the country – from Townsville to Bendigo, Nowra, Port Augusta and West Wyalong.

It is incumbent on governments and the telecommunications industry to work constructively to improve regional connectivity.

We know farmers and other primary producers grapple with communications challenges in a way many of us living in our capital cities simply don’t experience. But we are committed to listening and understanding this challenge.

You spoke, and our Government listened.

In the October 2022 Federal Budget, the Albanese Government committed $1.1 billion through our Better Connectivity Plan to narrow the digital divide and improve regional connectivity through a range of initiatives.

These investments form part of the Albanese Government’s overall $2.2 billion commitment to improve regional communications – the most significant investment in regional comms since the creation of the National Broadband Network.

I want to give you a practical sense of what this $2.2 billion investment is targeted towards, and importantly, our progress toward delivering these improvements.
 
NBN fixed wireless
 
$480 million is going towards upgrading the NBN fixed wireless network to significantly boost its speed and capacity, but critically, to also enable 120,000 premises to move from satellite to fast fixed wireless broadband.
 
And we’re making good progress.
 
Around 25,000 premises are already now able to shift from satellite to fixed wireless technology. 
 
Importantly, these upgrades are freeing-up the capacity of Sky Muster satellite services.
 
So much so that we recently launched NBN Sky Muster Platinum Plus, offering uncapped data 24/7; a first for an NBN consumer product.
 
The launch follows a successful trial of 10,000 regional households earlier this year that reported increased user satisfaction with the new service.
 
NBN fibre upgrades
 
We are also investing an estimated $1.1 billion to expand full-fibre NBN access to a further 660,000 regional home and businesses by late 2025.
 
I am pleased to confirm NBN Co is on track to deliver its milestone of expanding full-fibre access to 2 million premises by the end of 2023, with our plan of expanding full-fibre access to 3.5 million premises by the end of 2025.
 
Regional Connectivity
 
Furthermore, the Government has opened up $160 million in competitive grant rounds for the Regional Connectivity Program and Mobile Black Spot Program.
 
My department is currently assessing the applications for these rounds and I expect to announce the outcomes before the end of this year.
 
And separate to the Better Connectivity Plan, we’ve delivered funding for mobile coverage improvements in 42 communities across Australia through our Improving Mobile Coverage Round.

Announced just last week, this funding delivers on election commitments we made in Opposition to communities with coverage issues not addressed by previous initiatives.
 
We have a bold and ambitious agenda in regional communications, and we’re getting the funding out the door to deliver positive outcomes for the communities who need it most.
 
And this brings me to the On-Farm Connectivity Program.
 
Boosting On Farm Connectivity

While connectivity to the homestead is important, we know for our primary producers, it’s not the end of the story.

Like most sectors, the new frontiers in agriculture are digital.

Connected machinery and technology have the potential to be game changing.

Advanced farming technologies will help to improve crop yields, optimise labour productivity and enhance safety.

To fully exploit cutting edge technology, we know that producers want and need connectivity ‘to the paddock’.

The regional communications investments I’ve described provide the foundation, but I believe there is a role for government to support greater uptake in connected machinery to improve agricultural outputs. This is something directly contemplated in the 2021 Regional Telecommunications Review, and something we picked up and endorsed.

We took to the last election a commitment to fund a $30 million On Farm Connectivity Program – and that’s exactly what we’ve done.
 
A first for an Australian Government, this innovative program will help producers take advantage of connected machinery.

It’s a simple proposal that has the potential to make a real difference.

The Federal Government will provide 50 per cent rebates for the cost of smart farming technology that optimise soil quality and nutrient levels, monitor livestock, improve efficiency of water use, streamline farm logistics and boost customer connections throughout the world.
 
The Australian Farm Institute estimates full adoption of digital and agtech by the agricultural sector could add upwards of $20 billion in additional sector value.

And this program will play a key role in helping reach the NFF’s 2030 goal: to exceed $100 billion in farm gate output by 2030.

We funded the Program in October last year.  Following extensive scoping and consultation earlier this year, we sought Expressions of Interest from suppliers keen to jump on board.
 
And today, I am pleased to announce Round 1 for applications in On Farm Connectivity Program to be officially opened.
 
I strongly encourage primary producers to take advantage of the benefits smart farming offers.
 
We want to make this as easy as possible for Aussie farmers.
 
All you have to do is go to the Department’s website to read the guidelines and see the full list of suppliers and types of equipment available for rebates under the Program.

The NFF has been a key partner in developing this Program – and I thank you for your engagement through this process.
 
Working together, we can help to lift the digital capability of Australia’s farmers to ensure that they have the means to adopt digital solutions and reap the benefits for their businesses.

A modern universal service framework

As many in this room and online know, central to the delivery of telecommunications services in Australia is the important safety net that is the Universal Service Obligation (USO).

The USO is a long-standing regulated safeguard to ensure all Australians can have access to landline telephone services - regardless of where they live.  For decades its ensured that a standard voice service would be available at a capped price, usually over a copper connection.

The universal service framework also supports related obligations such as installation and fault repair timeframes. This has been a very important safety net for regional and rural consumers.
 
Universal access to voice and broadband is a vital consumer right to which the Government remains steadfastly committed.

Telstra has delivered the USO on behalf of the Australian Government since it was privatised in the 1990s, with the contract running to 2032.

The contract has a significant annual cost: $230 million for fixed-voice services and $40 million for payphones that is funded via a levy paid by the larger telecoms operators.
 
Since the introduction of the USO in the 1990s there has been significant technological change.
 
Mobile coverage has expanded.
 
We have a world-class NBN fixed-wireless network that will cover over 750,000 premises in regional Australia that previously relied solely on copper, meaning 97 per cent of Australian premises have access to high-speed, fixed line or fixed-wireless broadband that could also support voice services.
 
There is also significant innovation with the launch of low earth orbit satellites that have improved broadband, reduced latency, and have the potential to improve voice access, both for landlines and mobiles.
 
And yet the terms of the USO contract and the types of services covered, have not been updated in over ten years.
 
There is an opportunity to modernise the USO in a manner that benefits regional and remote consumers and their long-term interests.  Work needs to progress now because the USO is not fit for purpose – it needs to catch up with technological and market developments that have and are taking place.
 
There are many diverse voices who have called for examination of how to improve and modernise the USO.
 
This includes a plethora of reviews and inquiries: including the 2021 Regional Telecommunications Review, the Productivity Commission in 2017, as well as calls for reform from ACCAN, the ACCC, and the National Farmers Federation. And through all of those initiatives, it’s hard to find any organisation saying that the USO arrangements were working to their full potential.
 
As far back as 2015, I have been calling for the USO to be modernised to respond to the significant changes realised by the roll out of the NBN and new technologies.
 
The cost of maintaining the current approximately 300,000 USO copper network connections is growing at the same time that the functionality of that 20th century technology struggles to keep up with the most basic performance of more modern technology, like fibre or fixed wireless services. 
 
And the broader community shows no sign of slowing its bandwidth demands.
 
Neither the Government, nor, more importantly, the consumer, are getting bang for buck from the current arrangements as the services that underpin the USO-  universal voice services for all Australians, could be met through a variety of ways that allows more Australians to benef   it from improved telecommunications services.
 
But where to from here?
 
What I do know is that we certainly don’t need any more inquiries to tell us the current USO is no longer “fit for purpose”.   
 
What we need is an action plan to get us where we need to go – to a modern approach to universal telecommunications services.
 
Our challenge is working together to determine what that action plan looks like.
 
I am committed to working in partnership with the community to ensure future arrangements are sustainable, proven and will deliver for those that need them most.
 
Today, I am pleased to announce that the Government will commence a public consultation process to identify opportunities to better deliver the USO.  I am committed to reforming the universal services framework and that means acting and not just talking.
 
There are no pre-determined outcomes to this process aside from ensuring the USO continues to serve consumers, especially those who live in regional, rural and remote areas. The long-term interests of consumers have always been – and remain – our guiding principle. 
 
As a first step, my Department will publicly consult on the service characteristics that could underpin a more modern USO.  The next Regional Telecommunications Review, will assist as a sounding board for this process by providing quality advice through its own engagement and feedback on community expectations.
 
The delivery of the USO is underpinned by a technology-agnostic approach, and we welcome feedback on alternative technologies for voice services – such as upgraded Fixed Wireless Access and LEOSats which the Government is also trialling.
 
To ensure community input is heard and valued, it is important this process be inclusive and transparent.
 
To be clear the Government has not made any decisions and we are not pre-disposed towards one pathway or another.
 
Our Government makes this commitment:  we will not make changes to USO arrangements unless there are tested and proven alternatives to existing technologies.
 
As Communications Minister, I strive to be consultative, evidence-based and consumer focused. I want to work with communities and the regional experts who know best.
 
That’s why I value your views on what a modern USO could look like, how best to assess the suitability of possible alternative platforms for the delivery of USO voice services and how to implement reform. 
 
I appreciate that reliability of communications options to access fixed voice services is particularly important to many regional and remote consumers, in areas with limited or no mobile coverage.
 
That’s why we are keen to adopt a future-focused approach that leverages any and all technology developments which will improve the essential services and safety of Australians.

I strongly encourage the NFF and all its members to provide input to what I consider the start of a long and necessary conversation.
 
As always, I am certain your contributions will be considered and thoughtful; much like those I received when meeting with the NFF’s Young Farmers’ Council earlier this week.
 
Ultimately, any new approach must ensure robust and reliable services for all.

Telecommunications and broadcasting resilience

Part of the challenge in a country as vast and prone to disasters as ours is ensuring we do all we can – as government and industry – to keep communities informed and services online.

Disasters are becoming increasingly common and more severe.

And when you’re caught up in a natural disaster, the ability to access emergency information is critical.

Every second matters.

In some circumstances, a mobile tower operated by one carrier can be disrupted during a disaster, while other networks remain completely uninterrupted.

That presents an important opportunity for industry collaboration through the implementation of a community service- like temporary emergency mobile roaming.

The principle is sound and completely straight forward: during a disaster, you should be able to access emergency information, no matter your carrier.

This is a principle echoed by the ACCC in its recent Regional Mobile Infrastructure Inquiry.

The ACCC found that temporary emergency mobile roaming is something that is technically feasible, but requires close collaboration across government and industry to develop the capability.

This kind of network sharing has never been done before in Australia, and carriers will need to ensure they can manage issues that may arise, like network congestion.

Earlier this week, I was pleased to announce along with my colleague Minister Watt that we have tasked our Departments with scoping this service.

Our Departments will work with industry over the coming months to provide advice to Government by March 2024.

And while no communications network can ever be 100 per cent resilient – taken with our investments through the Mobile Networking Hardening and Broadcasting Resilience Programs, temporary emergency roaming would provide practical outcomes to help keep more Australians online – particularly when they need it most.

Regional Tech Hub

Finally, this afternoon, I want to talk about the Regional Tech Hub initiative run by the NFF.
 
In our first Budget, we made a $6 million investment for the Hub to continue its free services for people in regional and rural communities to get connected and ensure reliable access to the opportunities that the digital world provides.
 
The Hub is making a real difference to real people.
 
People like retiree Don Mason from the small village of Weetailba in the NSW’s Central West.
 
In mid-2020, despite no previous issues with 4G connectivity, Don lost his internet and mobile phone service and started an almost two-year battle to get the issue fixed.
 
With limited service, Don would often drive the 60km round trip to Coolah or Binnaway to check emails and make calls.
 
Travel restrictions of the pandemic only made this problem worse.
 
After several months of frustration, Don came across the Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Remote Australia volunteer group who put him in contact with the Regional Tech Hub.
 
In April 2022, he contacted the Hub and requested a connectivity report that he gave his telco provider to investigate further - the issue was not with his house connection.
 
The Regional Tech Hub also raised Don’s case with the provider, which saw an inquiry undertaken on the local 4G site to determine if the equipment was the cause of the issue.
 
The outcome: three faults were identified with equipment at the base station.
 
The faulty equipment was replaced and the district’s 4G connection was restored.

This is only one example of the immeasurable difference that the Hub is making in the lives of rural and regional Australians.

The Hub is a trusted voice; a friend at the local ag show capable of trouble shooting problems to get real results.

I thank, in particular, Jen Medway, who does a terrific job of connecting Australian farmers as Manager of the Regional Tech Hub.

And I am so pleased the NFF is continuing to operate the Hub, following the competitive tender process we ran earlier this year.
 
Conclusion

In closing, this conference is a celebration of rural businesses communities, of farmers and producers, of the agriculture sector and the important wealth that it creates for our country.
 
As a representative of the Albanese Government, it has been a delight to join you today.
 
Connectivity is a necessity for all Australians.
 
In agriculture, technologies to better manage the business requires connectivity in-paddock and home.
 
Our Government is helping to ensure Australia maintains a global edge in sustainable production and innovation. Indeed, I hope that by outlining how we are delivering on our election commitments and taking decisive action for the long-term, you can get a sense in the communications portfolio about how we’re a Government that is working for all Australians.
 
I thank the NFF for your strong and ongoing engagement, and particularly the vision articulated in the Connectivity and Digital Agriculture Policy Statement.
 
We share common goals, and are delivering on them.
 
The On Farm Connectivity Program is boosting Agtech uptake.
 
Our Government’s ongoing support for the Regional Tech Hub is improving connectivity literary.

The USO consultation process we’ve initiated today will ensure rural and regional communities are not left behind – but rather, able to access the technology safety net they need to stay connected.
 
And the work we’re doing to coordinate with the telecommunications industry to develop emergency roaming capabilities and foster more effective infrastructure sharing will have tangible benefits for regional Australians across the country.
 
Working together with the NFF, we are delivering on our commitment to narrow the digital divide – from our cities to the bush.
 
And in turn, we’re building a nation where no one is held back, and no one is left behind.
 
Thank you.