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Vodafone pushes M2M for agriculture

The telco is again turning its focus towards regional Australia, saying better coverage and competition needs to be pushed in order for the agricultural sector to innovate.

Vodafone Australia CEO Inaki Berroeta has outlined plans to tap the agriculture sector's potential through telecommunications reform.

Without more coverage and choice between mobile networks for those living in regional areas of Australia, jobs growth and innovation in agriculture cannot be achieved, Berroeta said in a speech during the Digital Transformation in Agriculture Breakfast at Parliament House on Thursday morning.

In particular, the chief executive spruiked machine-to-machine (M2M) technology as an answer for farmers.

"Agriculture is one of the areas where machine-to-machine technology can make the biggest differences, but changes are needed to ensure farmers don't miss out on the opportunity to take advantage of advances in technology," Berroeta said.

"M2M can enable farmers to work smarter and faster, such as remotely monitor and adjust soil moisture levels, or receive live updates from the paddock on their tablets."

Berroeta also used the opportunity to advocate bi-partisan support for the Regional Telecommunications Review 2015 [PDF] tabled in October, which, among 11 other recommendations, said a Consumer Communication Fund should be established in replacement of the Universal Service Obligation (USO).

"It's an enormous missed opportunity that AU$253 million is spent every year through the USO to maintain an outdated copper network in regional areas which will be connected to the NBN," Berroeta said.

"By devoting these funds to delivering 21st-century telecommunications in regional Australia, farmers and all Australians would reap the benefits of the digital transformation through access to improved coverage and choice of provider.

"The USO is a roadblock to effective competition in regional areas, which means customers are paying more than they should. In fact, the Centre for International Economics found the price premium paid by Australians for telecommunication services is AU$3.1 billion each year.

"Vodafone and many regional communities want urgent and effective action when the government responds to the Regional Telecommunications Review's report shortly."

In December, Vodafone announced a partnership with the National Farmers' Federation (NFF) to help develop an online platform for farmers as part of an effort to "digitally transform" the agriculture industry.

The three initiatives 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 M2M for APAC, Justin Nelson, added that the telco would 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."

Berroeta also outlined regional expansion plans in October 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.

"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 federal government has been focusing on delivering access to broadband and mobile services to remote areas, with the announcement of the second round of its mobile blackspot program in December, providing AU$60 million to bring better telecommunications coverage to regional areas.

NBN's long-term satellite solution also aims to provide high-speed broadband for the 3 percent of the Australian population not living within the fixed-wireless, fibre, and hybrid fibre-coaxial NBN network footprint, with commercial launch planned for mid April or early May.

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