THE first stage of a $22 million Agricultural Telecommunications Infrastructure Improvement fund was released at Northam last week.
The Digital Farm program is the first step the State government is taking to improve farm digital technology and provide regional businesses with fast, reliable and affordable connections.
Grants of up to $500,000 are available for connectivity projects, provided proponents make a matching contribution.
The application period for grants is open until Friday, April 13.
Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan said one of the biggest challenges for increased farm productivity was improving digital connectivity.
She said a lot of marketing and data analysis was inaccessable to farmers and businesses because they required strong digital infrastructure.
Ms MacTiernan said it’s simply not possible for producers to compete in a global market if they don’t have an international standard of connectivity.
“We can’t have our farming communities held back,” Ms MacTiernan said.
“We can’t deny them the opportunities to use the ag tech that is coming – the sensing, the data analysis – and to utilise the marketing opportunities that comes with it.”
Ms MacTiernan said the grant would kickstart investment-ready, proposals for digital infrastructure and the government was looking to the agricultural community for ideas, trials and investments into ways digital connectivity could be advanced.
A six-month audit last year identified some government-owned telecommunication towers that could be utilised in the planning process.
These towers run through government buildings such as police, fire and safety and shire buildings.
The government will investigate ways to link key players, including Telstra and the NBN to provide better service to regional areas.
The next step of the program is to bridge the fibre gaps so digital connectivity is available more often than not.
Wongan Hills farmer Sue Middleton said she hopes the connectivity fund would deliver an enterprise grade network which can extend wifi coverage fully across farms.
“NBN has failed to deliver us the speeds and the quality of data that we need,” Ms Middleton said.
“We are all on capped data and on those plans we can’t run our business.”
Ms Middleton hopes that a project could encourage CBH, Arc Infrastructures and the NBN to co-operate to help digitalise the Wheatbelt.
Dan Sanderson, Grass Patch, said the highest point in a town was usually a CBH bin and fibres follow the Arc Infrastructures (Brookfield) railway lines.
“We need all the big players to come together and sort out an agreement as to how they can help put this plan into action and help all the farmers who don’t have good digital reception,” Mr Sanderson said.
The Sandersons use a farm data management program and want to use gross margin reporting on their paddocks, although this isn’t possible due to the limited connectivity to paddocks away from the house.
“I find myself sitting up to one o’clock in the morning inputing data, where I want to be able to do that in my tractor,” he said.
Mr Sanderson is conducting trials with receivers on top of CBH bins, that receive satellite signal from providers, to see if satellite is an option.
“The trial isn’t finished, although talking to farmers involved in the trial, they can connect anywhere on their farm within a 20 kilometre radius of the receiver,” he said.
“But the download speed is terrible, they are still better off to go and park on top of the hill where they know they get Telstra reception and get online there.”
The Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPRID) has advanced its technology and analytical software to reduce the driving time to trial sites.
But DPRID development officer Christiaan Valentine said it needed good connectivity to relay information back to the main office which wasn’t available.
“We have the technology, we just can’t use it to its full potential – like a lot of other ag tech out there,” Mr Valentine said.
Ms MacTiernan said it was important all producers were able to use the technology they have available to them and the government was trying to do its bit to improve this with the new fund.