THE Liberal and Nationals Government has announced it will undertake a feasibility study of up to $2 million to look at ways to improve digital connectivity in the WA grain belt.
Federal Regional Services Minister and The Nationals deputy leader senator Bridget McKenzie was in Katanning for the announcement last week and said it would lead to new opportunities for farmers, business operators and the entire Wheatbelt community.
"This will assist in increasing and driving the productivity of this region going forward well into the 21st century," Ms McKenzie said.
"We know the importance of road and rail for opening up regional Australia for our mining and agriculture industries over our entire history.
"Now in the 21st century the application and adoption and roll out of digital infrastructure is incredibly important and it is something our government has taken very seriously over the past five years.
"There are two Sky Muster satellites as part of our investment and there are more than 1000 mobile base stations funded across the country thanks to our investment with State governments and telcos.
"We have a million square kilometres with mobile coverage now that wasn't there five years ago and there is more work to be done.
"In the budget last week there was another two rounds of mobile blackspot funding - rounds five and six - at $80m a pop.
"This has already seen almost 80 mobile base stations funded in the Central Wheatbelt region over the past five years.
"Last week, a $60m digital connectivity package was also announced, which recognises that in this wide brown land it is not just flat it is actually full of topographical changes that impact on your connectivity, so that $60m will be a fund that communities and industry can apply against to adopt new technologies that help local spaces and places and industries to get more mobile connected, particularly with the Internet of Things on farm and increasing productivity."
Ms McKenzie said the $2m study would be targeted specifically to improving digital connectivity in the Central Wheatbelt.
"We know there are many proponents that have been looking at this issue in a detailed way and WA SuperNet is one of those," she said.
"This feasibility study will be undertaken by the Department of Communication and will be seeking applications from a wide variety of proponents who care about connectivity and have expertise in delivering connectivity specifically in WA.
"We want to see regional Australia grow and prosper, and there is one way to do that and that is to back the agricultural industry unequivocally which we do as a Federal government.
"We can sign all the free trade agreements we like but without this critical infrastructure our farmers will not be able to compete with the agricultural bastions around the world such as Russia and the United States."
Federal Member for O'Connor Rick Wilson said the government had listened to residents and local business owners in regional WA and was taking action to improve telecommunications services.
"This funding follows on from a visit by Federal Communications Minister Mitch Fifield to the Nenke family farming property in Kukerin, where we held a round table with a whole range of stakeholders," Mr Wilson said.
"There were representatives of SuperNet plus various independent operators who are looking to provide a high quality wireless broadband across the Wheatbelt.
"Out of that came a review of regional communications which came up with a series of recommendations and an additional $60m of funding over the mobile blackspot program.
"The WA government has put some money on the table also and now we have this $2m to undertake a feasibility study.
"That will go to somebody to come up with a proposal to provide broadband across the Wheatbelt.
"Improved connectivity will help boost our agriculture and transport industries which are the backbone of the Australian economy."
WA SuperNet is working with CBH and Arc Infrastructure to use their networks to bring 4000 kilometres of optic fibre to the grain belt of WA.
WA SuperNet project manager Steve Mason said the company would be applying for the new funding and if successful it could be the final piece in the puzzle for their project.
"It would help us with engineering and finalisation to get the project off the ground," Mr Mason said.
"We approached CBH and Arc Infrastructure with this concept in its infancy and they supported us straight away.
"The fibre network would run down the easements of Arc Infrastructure and pop out at the CBH bins and give last mile providers the opportunity to come in and deliver solutions to farmers and towns."
Mr Mason said there were examples all over the world where digital connectivity is working well in regional areas.
"We are basing this project on one called Alberta SuperNet, which is in Calgary in Canada," he said.
"I spent time there in the mid-90s so I saw the precursor to it.
"The provincial government put in 13,000km of fibre and it was incredible and that was the most advanced government I ever worked with.
"Now, whether you live in Calgary or Edmonton or the back of nowhere, you get the same speed at same cost and it has people going back to country in droves and new businesses are starting up."
Mr Mason said WA SuperNet's part of the project, if it got up and running, would cost at least $130m to implement.
CBH chairman Wally Newman said the feasibility study was exciting news for regional WA.
"I was in Russia two years ago and came away thinking we are going to struggle to keep up with them - they can produce grain $40 a tonne cheaper than us," Mr Newman said.
"WA has to have everything going for it and as a consequence of that tour we came back and looked at ways to make CBH as efficient as we can.
"But connectivity is number one and having good connectivity has huge ramifications.
"I remember the Department of Agriculture did a presentation to the CBH board a few years ago and said Australian agriculture could see a 16 per cent productivity gain from connectivity-related developments which includes robotic machinery and so on.
"That equates to about $1 billion a year in WA alone.
"The Russians and the Americans are on to it and we need to be as well.
"CBH has taken the imitative with SuperNet and Arc and is looking to get fibre optic over the whole Wheatbelt and connect up the whole area.
"We can't compete internationally without it."