Why is mobile phone service a luxury in regional and remote communities?

Published: February 2020 I By: Sandra Godwin

Lack of mobile and internet coverage in rural areas of NSW means producers are missing out on boosted productivity at the cost of their business.

Farmers Luke Byrnes and Nicole Dimos-Byrnes with sons Marcus and Rowan on their property in Western NSW. Nicole says poor mobile and internet service has a big impact on their farm. Source: supplied. 
NICOLE Dimos-Byrnes would love to set up electronic sensors to monitor troughs for her Merino sheep and send alerts when water levels fall too low. With two properties 70km apart and totalling more than 6,000 hectares, the water run currently takes one person up to four hours every second day.

A sensor could save that time, but dreadful mobile phone coverage makes that impossible. Even the simplest of tasks can be difficult. “All of our banking is online now. You get a new payee and when you enter them in, you have to get a code sent to your mobile phone, but on the farm we can’t actually get the code – you’ve got to drive 15km up the road to get phone service and by the time you’ve got the code and driven back, it’s expired.”

As executive officer of a national precision agriculture group, she appreciates the benefits of technology for both business and farming. Unfortunately, poor access to mobile phone and internet services seriously limits how much she and husband Luke Byrnes can actually use that technology on their sheep and cropping properties, near Pooncarie in Western NSW.

And it’s one of the reasons Nicole lives for three days a week in the regional Victorian city of Mildura, 100km to the south of the farm. This allows her to complete her work for farming systems organisation the Society of Precision Agriculture Australia, and lets her two young sons attend school.
When the NSW government kicked off a five-week consultation for the Regional Digital Connectivity program with a meeting at Pooncarie in October last year, Nicole was one of a dozen locals who attended. “These people were from Sydney. I think they thought we were exaggerating,” says Nicole, who told them her story about driving 15km to get a banking code.

Luke Byrnes pulls off the road to hunt for phone reception near his Pooncarie farm. Source: supplied. 

Apart from the trough sensors, there are many more applications that would benefit their farming enterprise, which includes dryland broadacre crops such as wheat, barley and field peas.

Rural communities left behind with huge technological divides

Nicole recalls a decade ago sitting next to a Victorian farmer who received a phone alert. “He said there’d been a price change in grain and he’d better ring the driver to tell him to put that load in storage rather than sell,” she says. 

“That’s a luxury. We can’t do it, so everything goes into storage [at harvest]. It’s too time consuming to stop a header just to go and get a price check. Or, even if the driver gets there and he can see what the price is, he can’t ring us to ask what we want him to do with the load.”

While other farmers are using sensors to collect and analyse data to help improve productivity and efficiency, and cut costs, Nicole and Luke feel left behind. They have machinery with standard features that are capable of so much more, but the technology is useless without reliable mobile or internet services. 

“The main things we raised at the Pooncarie meeting was the inability to be innovative,” Nicole says. About 350km to the east, NSW Farmers’ Rankins Springs branch president Mat Molloy has run into similar difficulties on his farms in the Riverina.

A large-scale dryland farmer, Mat crops wheat, barley and pulses and has up to 12 people on staff at peak periods such as sowing and harvest. He estimates unreliable mobile and internet services cost him tens of thousands of dollars each year in lost productivity on top of the expense of paying brokers to sell his grain.

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“If I had to rely on everyone ringing me, I wouldn’t be able to sell half of what I grow,” he says. “I fork out up to $40,000 a year to these guys to sell my grain to make sure I don’t miss any deals.

 “If I want to talk to someone on the farm, I’ll have to try one-and-a-half times on average to get them. Then they’ve got to stop what they’re doing and walk around to get service.”

Mat and his wife Monica have the NBN Sky Muster satellite service at home, but that has proven inadequate for online banking and for using cloud-based software such as MYOB for accounting. Both frequently drop off or time out because of slow internet speeds.

Disillusioned by declining mobile phone service from Telstra, they changed to Optus about three years ago. “When it first came online it was great; I had service all over my farm,” Mat says.

“I thought when we eventually go to autonomous tractors, this is going to work, but now I’ve got to walk outside the house to get service and if we’re in the shed we’ve got to walk outside the shed.”

Itching to get his hands on an autonomous tractor or sprayer as soon as they become commercially available, Mat discovered it would require uploads of 50gb a session for each machine to provide real-time monitoring and as unlimited data isn’t available, it would be prohibitively expensive. 

He explored the possibility of setting up his own on-farm wi-fi network but ran into the same hurdle: the data can only be viewed through the manufacturer’s website, requiring fast, reliable internet.

“There is no internet capability out here now or likely in the near future that can do that,” he says. “This is never going to work because the connectivity is just not there.”

Riverina producer Ben Dal Broi on his property near Griffith. Source: supplied. 

Riverina farmer Ben Dal Broi grows wheat and cotton at Benerembah, about 20km west of Griffith, with his wife Louise and parents Joe and Alice.

He’s embraced precision agriculture, collecting data via satellite and through onboard GPS 
computers to map yield, biomass and elevation. This allows variable rate application of fertilisers, manures and sprays.

Down the track Ben plans to use more telemetry to monitor soil moisture probes, irrigation valves and cameras. That’s when mobile and internet coverage will become a greater issue. 

“I’m even considering long-term putting a wi-fi system across the whole farm, so I don’t have to rely on intermittent and unreliable phone coverage,” he says.

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Ben and Louise have a Cel-Fi booster to improve mobile phone reception in their house and use Sky Muster satellite for internet.

“I’m grateful for the satellite; it gives us a service,” Ben says. “Before that I just had mobile 3G internet which was next to useless. It’s not good for business when phones don’t work. 
“We don’t need the bells and whistles for watching high-definition sports on the go. My neighbours and I just need phones that work, and a basic level of services for running our business operations, education and safety.”

“There are other areas much worse than mine – just another 5km down the road – that have next to no phone coverage at all. That’s not okay.”

Sonia O’Keefe says the rapid evolution of technology makes it difficult for consumers to keep up with what’s available. Photography by David Hahn. 

NSW Farmers’ Rural Affairs Committee member Sonia O’Keefe is a beef and sheep producer in a mobile phone blackspot 30km east of Walcha in the NSW Northern Tablelands region. 

The Regional, Rural and Remote Communications Coalition (RRRCC) has been lobbying for better phone and internet services. During the past three years, the RRRCC has won higher data allowances and business services over Sky Muster, as well as funding to expand mobile networks into more blackspots and continue a digital literacy program run by volunteers at Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Remote Australia.

Sonia says the RRRCC’s primary goal is to ensure people across Australia can access the technology they need to deliver the services they require at a reasonable price. 

“There’s no point saying there’s a fantastic service if it’s going to cost tens of thousands of dollars to access it and that’s not affordable,” she says.

The digital divide in Sydney compared to rural and regional Australia. Source: Australian Digital Inclusion Index.

“We need to have some equity across the country. The big difference between rural and metropolitan areas is that you can get a really good service for a reasonable price in metropolitan areas, whereas we seem to have to pay a lot more for a poorer quality service.”

Sonia says the rapid evolution of technology – and tech-speak – make it difficult for consumers to keep up with what’s available, but advances will eventually deliver the services they need. “We are getting to the point where we’re able to do small-scale things in a regional area or even smaller, in clusters of properties or even individual properties, to improve our telecommunications,” she says.

“Technology is improving all the time to allow us to do that and to make it more affordable. That then brings in the complication of understanding – as an individual or a cluster of farmers you’ve got to bring yourself up to a level of digital understanding so that you can go out and purchase whatever is required that will work for you.”

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In the meantime, the RRRCC continues to pursue its goals and highlights its concerns to governments and the major phone and internet providers. “Rural people aren’t always vocal and the [telcos] seem to not always be aware of the issues that we’re having,” Sonia says. “We have to keep up the dialogue and keep pushing that.”  

Connectivity and mobile service on trial for farmers

Carwoola Pastoral Company general manager Darren Price is working with MLA to trial new agtech solutions. Source: supplied. 
A Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) report published last year identifies connectivity as the single most important enabler when it comes to digital innovation in agriculture.

“Connectivity is what enables farmers to access and effectively use farm management systems, IoT [Internet of Things] systems, agtech, and decision-farming techniques,” says the report. “It enables farmers to tap into the power of data.”

It cites case studies, including the experience of Carwoola Pastoral Company, which farms 6,500 hectares near Bungendore in South East NSW. In 2018, Carwoola general manager Darren Price and MLA set out to test a range of connectivity and agtech solutions across four properties. 

It employs more than 200 devices from 22 different service providers, including cattle tags, rain gauges, soil probes and monitors for grain silos, pumps and electric fences. They’re connected by LoRaWAN and Sigfox gateways, satellite internet and on-farm wi-fi.

Benefits include time savings from remote management, and peace of mind. A challenge has been the lack of integration and inability to see data from all 22 apps in a single dashboard. The trial is continuing.

What we need to improve rural and regional connectivity 

The Regional, Rural and Remote Communications Coalition, a group of 21 organisations including NSW Farmers, is calling for:
  1. Guaranteed access to voice and data services.

  2. Equitable voice and data services that meet minimum standards and reliability.

  3. Continued program to expand mobile coverage.

  4. Digital capacity building for regional, rural and remote Australia.

  5. Affordable communications services for regional, rural and remote Australia.

Fast facts about connectivity in Australian households

  • 88% of Australian households in major cities have internet access at home.

  • 77% of households in remote parts of Australia have internet access at home.

Fast facts about Australian mobile phone providers and their service

  • Telstra will switch off its 3G network in 2024. Both Optus and Telstra have begun rolling out their 5G networks.

  • 5G promises faster speeds, better reliability and improved capacity, but across a smaller footprint than 4G.

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