Vodafone partners on digitising agriculture

The agricultural sector has been identified as being the next digital revolution front, with Vodafone partnering up with the National Farmers' Federation to deliver an online platform.

Vodafone Australia has announced a partnership that will see the telecommunications provider help develop an online platform for Australian farmers as part of an effort to "digitally transform" the agriculture industry.

The three initiatives, led by the National Farmers' Federation (NFF), will see the establishment of an online platform to be used by farmers; the formation of an agricultural startup incubator named Sprout; and the founding of the Digital Agriculture Service (DAS).

The online platform, developed between the NFF and Vodafone and slated to go live in May 2016, will provide farmers, agribusiness services, and consumers with a source for news, market information, weather updates, blogs, commentary, a platform for campaigns and policy development, and information on best management practice.

According to Vodafone chief strategy officer and director of Corporate Affairs Dan Lloyd, Vodafone's participation in the online platform builds on the telco's commitment to strengthening communications services in regional areas.

"There are 6 million Australians living and working in regional areas, including over 100,000 farmers, and for too long they have been disadvantaged by a lack of mobile competition and choice of provider," Lloyd said.

"We know the cost to Australian telco consumers of lack of competition is AU$3.1 billion each year. That's AU$3.1 billion which could be driving growth, but instead is holding back the country, especially in regional areas.

"Vodafone is proud to be the champion for improved regional telecommunications services and increased competition to address the digital divide. This agreement supports our advocacy of a better deal for regional Australians, and builds on our commitment which includes rolling out 70 new regional mobile sites under the federal government's mobile blackspots program."

Vodafone head of Machine to Machine (M2M) for APAC, Justin Nelson, said the telco would also be able to provide insights to Australian farmers on using M2M technology.

"This agreement will enable us to work even more closely with farmers, agribusinesses, and consumers to capture the opportunities for mobile technology to drive agricultural productivity," Nelson said.

"There are enormous benefits for Australian farmers and agribusinesses through 'precision agriculture', including solutions which can measure soil moisture, monitor water levels, and deliver live updates from the field.

"M2M can help farmers to work smarter and faster, with more precision and accuracy, and ultimately improve their livelihoods."

Vodafone Australia CEO Inaki Berroeta recently outlined regional expansion plans to bring telco services competition across all areas of the country in an effort to improve choice and therefore pricing for those living in remote areas.

According to the chief executive, Vodafone's 4G network now reaches 97 percent of the Australian metropolitan population, with plans to have its entire network 4G-enabled by Q1 2016. He warned that without competition in regional areas, Australia will be left behind by the global digital revolution.

"Mobile technology has a big part to play in building a productive and truly national digital economy. By optimising the use of next-generation mobility, we can leverage Australia's strengths in industries such as agriculture, education, transport, healthcare, and tourism," Berroeta said, speaking at an American Chamber of Commerce in Australia (AmCham) event in October.

"It is well understood that telecommunications is a critical area of the economy. It can drive jobs, innovation, and productivity, but a lack of competition and innovation in the sector will hold the economy back."

Vodafone recently signed a AU$900 million, 15-year dark fibre deal with Australia's number three fixed-line operator, TPG, which will see TPG build out an extra 4,000km of fibre to connect Vodafone's cell towers across Australia by mid-2018 in an effort to reach more regions.

The NFF has also partnered with the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, supermarket giant Coles, consulting company Accenture, and accounting firm Crowe Horwath on the project to digitise the agricultural sector.

Sprout, the innovation hub, will provide funding for agribusiness and food startups to come to fruition. An assessment panel has been formed between the NFF and Crowe Horwath, which is working on generating interest with capital partners.

Spiro Paule, CEO of Crowe Horwath parent company Findex, said Sprout would be important to drive innovation in agriculture.

"This program will be the first of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, supporting grassroots innovation in what is arguably the country's most important sector," Paule said.

Sprout will be opening its first round of applications for incubation in early 2016.

The DAS, meanwhile, will see the NFF collaborate with Accenture to develop and deliver a suite of tools aimed at enabling farmers to leverage data to improve yield, lift revenues, and minimise expenditure in order to ensure Australia's agriculture industry remains competitive on a global scale.

"Today, farmers generate volumes of complex data, and there is enormous scope to use this data to enhance decision making and improve farm gate returns," Anthony Willmott, a managing director of Accenture Australia, said.

"By taking advantage of major innovation trends such as big data and the Internet of Things, tools like the Digital Agriculture Service have the potential to add as much as AU$5 billion to farm gate returns in coming years. For the first time in a generation, digital technologies can enable farmers to achieve a quantum leap forward in their performance."

The DAS will be available for all farmers in 2016, with specific DAS tool sets to be developed for the cotton, beef, and horticulture sectors initially, and other commodities will be added later.

Combined, the three initiatives will leverage the high-value agriculture sector through the high-speed connectivity being brought to regional areas by the National Broadband Network (NBN), according to NFF CEO Simon Talbot.

"Through these initiatives, we are seeking to facilitate disruption within the farm sector, and help farmers seize the benefits of faster connectivity," Talbot said on Saturday.

"Australian agriculture is entering a new growth phase with the potential to generate AU$1.2 trillion between now and 2030, while this year alone, agriculture is predicted to reap a record farm-gate return of AU$57.6 billion.

"We need to reposition agriculture as an industry not of the past, but of the future, with a flourishing culture of entrepreneurialism and innovation. These three initiatives will help facilitate this shift while bolstering prosperity across the sector."

The NBN aims to provide all Australians with speeds of at least 25Mbps regardless of location, with the multi-technology mix angling to provide 38 percent of the population with fibre to the node and fibre to the basement; 34 percent with hybrid fibre-coaxial; 20 percent with fibre to premises; 5 percent with fixed-wireless; and 3 percent with satellite services.

The technology being delivered to each premises depends on the geographic positioning of an area, with those living in metropolitan areas receiving HFC, FttN, FttP, or FttB. Fibre-to-the-distribution-point connections may be utilised for premises that are located more than 1 kilometre from a node, with those in even more remote areas to receive fixed-wireless or satellite services.

"We're closer than ever before to being on a level playing field between the city and the bush by providing kids in rural areas with access to digital textbooks, farmers with the latest technology, and creating a world of new possibilities for regional small businesses," Gavin Williams, executive general manager of Fixed Wireless Product and Sales at NBN, said recently.

The federal government has been focusing on delivering access to broadband and mobile services to remote areas, having tabled its report on regional telecommunications services in Parliament in October and announcing the second round of its mobile blackspot program on Wednesday.

The government also promised to focus on supporting startups and entrepreneurship in regional areas as part of its AU$1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda unveiled on Monday.

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