ON weekends I usually drive the 100 kilometres between my two worlds: Armidale, NSW, where we live while schooling our daughter, and the little remote farm we call home.
In that hour, I also cross the digital divide that is again growing between urban and rural Australia.
In town, our rental house is on National Broadband Network (NBN) fibre. Our $70 iiNet plan gives us 250 gigabytes of data a month, plus phone. We’ve adopted all the conventions of modern digital life - cloud computing, digital movie downloads, updating device software without a care.
Back home, we’re on the 'Rolls Royce' of rural data services: a Telstra wireless broadband service, maxed out at 15gb a month for $90.
If we bring our urban habits home, we burn up that quota in a week. The automatic activity of cloud services like Dropbox, Google Drive and automatic photo syncing burn data invisibly.
Downloading movies is out of the question, and updating devices usually has to be staggered in order not to chew up the best part of a month’s quota on iPads and iPhones.
It seems everyone I talk to is hitting up against similar constraints.
Hugh Nivison, the Walcha farmer who is currently chairman of the Fighting Fund, has five 15gb/month wireless plans associated with his farm.
Telstra doesn’t provide wireless plans larger than 15gb - not unless you’re Gina Rinehart, anyway - but Hugh and his wife, their school-aged children and their workmen collectively burn up several times more than that as citizens of an increasingly digital world.
And that’s without cloud computing. Apart from a few files backed up on Dropbox, Hugh keeps all his backups on a couple of private servers.
In Armidale, Mark Morton, the chief executive of farm software developer Practical Systems, is confronting similar issues in supporting his clients and future-proofing his business.
To lower costs and increase efficiency, Mark would like to roll out cloud computing support and backups to his client base. But many farms don’t have the bandwidth or reliability to work with 'the cloud'.
Practical Systems has a map of where it wants to go: it just doesn’t have the digital roads to travel on.
The digital divide is growing. Every month, the internet demands a little more bandwidth to work optimally - and every month, Australia’s rural communications infrastructure ages against those growing demands. The infrastructure isn’t very old, but the digital world works in dog years.
The much-hyped NBN satellites, due to be launched later this year, will resolve the speed problems that current satellite users face, but bandwidth will remain a constraint - as it is with wireless broadband.
And if bandwidth is limited, what of 'big data'?
Big data presumes that many little bits of data are going to be constantly fed into the internet - millions, trillions of bits of information that collectively make up a torrent of new knowledge about what’s happening on our farms and to our produce post-farmgate, among those who consume what we produce.
With that knowledge, we will - it is said - become more productive and profitable, better able to operate as a high-cost producer of high-quality food and fibre.
But you can’t direct a torrent down a hosepipe. If rural internet users are already hitting up against capacity constraints, big data doesn’t have a chance.
We need to be having an urgent conversation about communications infrastructure in the bush.
Those of us who live in rural areas are a scattered, politically weak, minority demographic. If our linkages to the world of digital business and enterprise grow much weaker, the only foreseeable future is one in which we are more scattered, politically weaker, and even more minor.