Why wait for 5G? We're building our own internet, say fed-up WA farmers

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There are few things that produce as much angst as slow internet and mobile dropouts.

But for the nation’s farmers, often living well beyond the range of fibre-optic cables and phone towers, the stakes are a lot higher.

Farmers internet key points

Key points

  • Funded in part by a WA Government grant the pilot aims to connect 50 farms within a 100 kilometre radius
  • Farmers say getting a good signal while working the vast swathes of Australia’s remote pastoral country requires a creative solution
  • If it works, 4G mobile technology will be used to create cell networks that will allow farmers to process data from sensors, cameras and tractors straight from the paddock

CEO of the Stirlings to Coast farmers group Dr Christine Kershaw says connectivity is vital.

Now, as city consumers toss up whether they should start penny-pinching for a 5G smartphone upgrade, a group of landholders on Western Australia’s south coast says instead of waiting for the big telcos to deliver on the technology they’ll do it themselves.

Stirlings to Coast Farmers CEO Christine Kershaw said farming was changing rapidly in terms of technology adoption and the lack of connectivity in the region was becoming “a bottleneck” for further development.

“We’ve been promised a lot from Telstra and everyone talks about the NBN but it’s not going to go to the [farms].

Last year, the farmers struck up a private partnership with a communications company that will connect properties to the NBN fibre optic network though a base station in a town north of Albany.

Funded in part by a $277,500 grant from the West Australian Government, the pilot aims to connect 50 farms within a 100 kilometre radius, with a possibility to extend the connections if it’s proven to work.

Once up an running, 4G mobile technology will be used to create small cell networks that will allow farmers to process data from sensors, cameras and tractors straight from the paddock.

The project is expected to be operational ahead of schedule by mid 2019, making it possibly the first network of it’s kind in the country.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for us, if you like, to take the farmers to the NBN rather than wait for the NBN to come to them,” said Dr Kershaw.

Kendenup farmer Andrew Slade says farms need good connectivity to remain profitable.

Farmers ‘crying out’ for better internet

For people like Andrew Slade, a grain and sheep farmer hosting a tower on his property as part of the pilot, it can’t come soon enough.

Even as Telstra continue their eagerly anticipated 5G rollout, with an extra 300 sites planned to open in metro markets and regional hubs this year, he said getting a good signal while working the vast swathes of Australia’s broadacre cropping and remote pastoral country required a creative solution.

“There’s just so much technology coming out now that’s digitally enabled,” he said.

“Whether it’s remote-monitoring technology or real-time capture of telematics on tractors, or things as simple as being able to get in contact with staff.

The communications company building — Pivotal Satellite — the network is also working with the University of New England (UNE) in Armidale on tools the digitally-connected farmer of the future could use to improve productivity, sustainability and animal welfare on their properties.

The University of New England is developing technology that saves farmers time and money by allowing them to monitor livestock remotely in real time.

“What we are really doing is adapting technologies which are well developed in the cities, and are now being adapted and better developed for rural areas where you have a lot fewer people so you need a different technology solution,” Pivotel Satellite WA Business Manager Nicholas Hart, said.

“The project we’re doing with UNE is about building very advanced technology around artificial intelligence. They’re developing technology that can not only recognise the cows, they can tell you the state and condition of the cows in real-time based on CCTV footage and analysis.”

Although Mr Slade said Australian farmers would be quick to pounce on the impressive new tools, just as city businesses are supported by digital infrastructure the Government needed to continue to play a role in plugging holes in the bush so they could remain competitive on the world stage.

“[Australian farmers] have always been early [technology] adopters I feel as an agricultural sector. Because we don’t have the same level of Government assistance other countries have, we’re very much market driven, there are no hand outs.

“[Helping provide] that basic infrastructure which is not really feasible for [us] as individuals to provide that’s definitely the role for Government.”

A spokesperson from the WA’s Department of Primary Industries said they were looking at the feasibility of a further round of funding for the Digital Farm Grant program, which contributed $5 million towards agricultural connectivity projects in the state including the 4G network.

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