FOR farmers, the NBN is a nice idea, but a better mobile network is a necessity.
This message, that mobile coverage for farmers has moved from the category of "handy to have" to "essential service", was regularly repeated at last week's Digital Rural Futures conference in Armidale.
And it was made plain that there is a new "digital divide" being formed, between those who have good access to mobile networks, and those who don't.
Those with good mobile coverage can effectively harness the vast mobile app market and the computing power of "the cloud", which allows people to use a seamlessly-linked ecosystem of digital devices.
Those sitting outside the network are confined to the desktop, an area of computing that is being eclipsed by the investment in mobile.
There were a billion smartphones in use around the world in 2012, with a billion more forecast to be sold in 2013.
A third of Australia's population now uses a smartphone, one of the highest smartphone market penetrations in the world.
The value of smartphones and tablets lies not with the hardware, but the apps, the software programs that make the devices into a customisable portable computer.
And the power of many apps lies in their ability to work seamlessly through a network, so that a device in someone's hand is a portal into the cloud.
For all the bandwidth advantages of the NBN, mobile devices - already becoming the default computer for many - must access the NBN, and "the cloud", through a wifi network. Building a farm-wide network is impractical for most farmers.
As someone at the Digital Rural Futures conference succinctly put it, the difference between the NBN and mobile networks is that the NBN provides for the "connected homestead"; the mobile network provides the "connected ute".
The ute - or the tractor cab - is increasingly where farm business is being conducted. At least, for those who have mobile coverage.
As the Armidale conference heard, large swathes of Australia's farming areas have patchy mobile reception at best, no mobile coverage at worst.
Where there is coverage, bandwidth is often an issue.
"We've had a dis-adoption of technology in some places," said Tim Neale, a director of PrecisionAgriculture.com.
"In Western Australia, we've heard that when miners come off shift and start checking Facebook there is so much demand on the Next G service that tractors operating off the same towers stop auto-steering."
Mr Neale said that progressive farmers with ready access to mobile coverage have an immediate productivity advantage over those that don't.
Mobile coverage can mean the difference between adoption of the proven tools of precision agriculture, and those technologies falling outside the farm's cost-benefit equation.
With a tsunami of new technology headed down the pipe, those with coverage will be at a growing advantage to those without, despite the NBN.
NSW Farmers Association president Fiona Simson said the NBN will be good for regional towns, but of dubious benefit to those outside the fibre footprint.
"The NBN WiFi towers are going up in the same places as the older towers," Ms Simson said.
"They aren't actually increasing the coverage, so that all we're doing is increasing the services to people who already have services. We're doing nothing for the people out there who don't have a service. They will get NBN satellite, but that's relatively limited."
"We have to reprioritise investment. Mobile coverage is an essential service these days."
Telstra erects new mobile towers based on the business case for their usage.
Ms Simson thinks the business case for many regions is changing as people adopt technology. As Mr Neale said, on some connected farms it is not uncommon to have 10-20 devices carrying a SIM card.
There is also a case for government chipping in some of the cost of new towers based on mobile coverage becoming an essential service, Ms Simson said.
"NSWFA did a survey of farmers and found that fixed line copper is still a high priority. But that's because many farmers don't have mobile coverage, and they are scared that if the copper isn't maintained, they'll lose all their services."
"If we want land to be productive, and to encourage rural and regional development, then government has to start standing behind it. The mobile service is something that's relatively easy to fix."
"Let's not just accept that people are leaving the bush and write it off."
Telstra was unable to comment on expansion of the Next G network in time for this article.