FEDERAL Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has visited regional Western Australia to gather first-hand farmer and community feedback about the social and economic importance of enhancing digital connectivity beyond the city limits.
Mr Fifield attended a roundtable instigated by Farming Champions chairwoman Mary Nenke last Friday, which was held on her Cambinata Yabbies property at Kukerin.
It was a follow up to a telecommunications summit held at the same location last year and attended by about 80 people from varying stakeholder groups who vented their concerns about inadequate services.
A session on that day chaired by WA Liberal senator Linda Reynolds led to her making a pledge to try to secure Mr Fifield’s presence at a future event – a promise she kept but was personally unable to attend last week’s roundtable meeting in person.
However, O’Connor Liberal MP Rick Wilson helped organise the event with Ms Nenke which saw 23 people selected to attend representing farming, business, tourism, local government, medical, regional development and telecommunications providers.
A recent research report by Rural Research and Development Corporation said better support for digital agriculture could unlock opportunities for production growth to the value of $20.3 billon; a 25pc increase on 2014/15 values.
But the study also highlights policy areas where Australia is lagging behind international competitors to utilise data and digital advancements.
Research project leader and consultant Dr Rohan Rainbow said everyone was conscious of the size and complexity of the task ahead and the need for cross-industry co-operation, to enhance digital connectivity to boost farmer returns.
“Connectivity remains a major barrier to adopting digital agriculture and as we’ve seen in countries like America, it’s often the technology providers who will have the most influence over addressing these problems,” Dr Rainbow said.
“Here in Australia, we’re currently suffering from a significant lack of collaboration across different agriculture sectors, to combine our spending power and attract market solutions.
“That’s got to change if we want to get private business, particularly technology suppliers, to the table and we will also need better collaboration between industries to enable optimum data sharing for making smarter and more profitable decisions about all aspects of production, from inputs to pricing.”
Ms Nenke said much ground was covered at last Friday’s roundtable meeting, including looking at opportunities and failures in delivery, with the Federal minister.
She said Mr Fifield responded to the talks with “with sincerity but offered no promises” and explained the government’s current investment agenda which included addressing black spots in telecommunications coverage.
But he appears to be hoping for private investment solutions in the provision of high speed internet in much of rural, regional and remote WA, she said.
Ms Nenke said Mr Fifield also raised the question of whether the Federal government should continue the universal service obligation (USO) of fixed lines, as an obligation, in future.
“Before Mitch left I impressed upon him that the government needs to recognise and promote the fact that high capacity broadband in the regions will directly and indirectly benefit of all Australians,” she said.
“Because they either live here, do business with or provide services to the regions, travel in the regions for business or pleasure and, as Australians, receive economic gain from the export income generated by the regions.
“And lastly but not least all Australians eat the food we produce daily.”
Mr Fifield said he joined Mr Wilson in hearing from a wide range of their experiences with telecommunications in regional communities.
“I acknowledged the value of farming communities such as Kukerin in providing agricultural products to the country and around the world,” Mr Fifield said.
“Most of this work cannot be done without reliable broadband and mobile coverage.
“Hearing from many of the stakeholders, I talked about the significant measures that the government has already taken to ameliorate connectivity problems in the bush.
“Just last Thursday, Regional Communications Minister Bridget McKenzie announced a total funding pool of $82.8 million for the third round of the Mobile Blackspot Program funding.
“This brings the government’s total investment in mobile communications to $220m to address mobile black spots across Australia and will see 867 locations receive new and upgraded mobile coverage.”
Mr Fifield said across all three rounds, the program had generated more than $680m in total investment which would address more than 4500 of the 10,000 black spots nominated by members of the public in regional and remote Australia.
He said nearly 25pc of all mobile towers under the program were being built in WA.
The NBN rollout in O’Connor is 95pc complete, he said, which means the vast majority of residents in the electorate can order an NBN service, including residents in small communities like Kukerin.
Mobile carriers claim to provide coverage to 99pc of Australia’s population but it’s estimated that around 70pc of Australia’s land mass has no mobile coverage.