​Agricultural innovation committee recommends upgrades to rural telco infrastructure

A report into agricultural innovation in Australia has called for the upgrade of telecommunications services in rural and remote agricultural areas to lay the foundations for successful technological advancements.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The Australian standing Committee on Agriculture and Industry recommended last week that the federal government commit to the continuation of its mobile blackspot program to lay the required infrastructure foundations for innovation in the agriculture sector.

The Smart Farming Inquiry into agricultural innovation made a total of 17 recommendations to the government that focused on the emerging agricultural technologies, key barriers to their adoption, and what the government can do to remove or reduce these barriers.

According to committee chair, Rowan Ramsey, the agriculture sector must be able to make the most of the innovation boom in order to support productivity growth and to maintain its competitiveness.

"At the core of the agricultural innovation boom are individual farm businesses that make decisions to adopt new technologies," Ramsey said. "If the government wishes to support innovation and growth, it must support these businesses in technology adoption."

Four of the recommendations from the House of Representatives committee focused on the availability of telecommunications infrastructure, asking the government to commit to the continuation of its blackspots program beyond the second round, and that the selection criteria be changed or added to in order to capture the telecommunications requirements of agricultural activity.

The first round of mobile blackspot funding was opened in December 2014, with Telstra and Vodafone securing AU$185 million in government funding to build or upgrade 499 mobile towers across remote areas of Australia.

The second round kicked off earlier this year, with Telstra and Vodafone announcing the 78 locations that will be constructed and switched on by the end of July. Minister for Communications Mitch Fifield said at the time the funding envelope for the program sat at AU$385 million, comprised of co-contributions from mobile operators, state and local governments, and third parties.

Telstra itself has invested AU$165 million into the mobile blackspot program.

"Behind the scenes, there has been significant work occurring in design planning, community consultations, the formulation and development of planning applications, and working with local councils to get the best outcome for everybody," Telstra group managing director for Networks Mike Wright said previously.

"None of this happens overnight, but it is happening and we are working as fast as we can to deliver on our commitments to these towns and communities."

In total, Telstra will build out 429 cell towers, while Vodafone builds out 70, with the full rollout to be completed within three years.

Still leveraging telecommunications infrastructure, the committee recommends the Australian government, in consultation with industry, investigates incentives for mobile network operators to provide roaming services between network operators in rural and remote areas.

The committee also wants the government to publish consolidated information about the availability of telecommunications services in rural and remote agricultural areas. It also urged the government to partner with research and training providers to educate and raise awareness of the innovative applications telecommunications services across the agricultural industry.

The report suggested the government also develop a national working group on agricultural innovation, tasked with improving the functionality of the agri-food/fibre innovation system, with the working group developed as part of a wider strategy of cross-sectoral agricultural innovation, within the National Primary Industries RD&E Framework.

"Technological advances will be even more important to the future of Australian agriculture," Ramsey said. "New technologies will support farm businesses to tackle heightened regional competition, growing resource scarcity, and other challenges."

Additionally, the committee recommends the CSIRO, in cooperation with industry, undertake a technical study to identify cost-effective approaches to using satellite services as backhaul for local wireless networks, after Sydney University's Dr Lindsay Campbell noted in his submission that big data is sourced directly from the likes of global positioning systems (GPS) and remote sensing from satellites and drones.

Two of the recommendations also called for a change in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) regulations to benefit the agricultural sector.

The committee suggested the Civil Aviation Safety Authority amend regulations which currently require the UAV or drone be flown within visual line of sight, to allow agricultural producers to use drones for monitoring purposes beyond line of sight on or over their own properties.

The committee also wants to see the government promote the use of drones in the Australian agricultural sector.

Last month, the federal government introduced new regulations on the use of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) in the country, which now sees commercial operators of "very small remotely piloted aircraft" no longer required to obtain a number of regulatory approvals to fly their unmanned vehicles.

Under the changes, the regulatory requirements for remotely piloted aircraft are eased and the term "UAV" is to be replaced by "RPA". The explanatory statement says this is to align itself with International Civil Aviation Organization terminology.

The changes, which take effect late September 2016, apply to remotely piloted aircraft used in commercial operations weighing less than 2 kilograms maximum take-off weight.

Last week, the Trade and Investment Growth Committee tabled its findings, recommending the federal government review the initiatives introduced as part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda after three years of operation to determine its effectiveness and whether the programs should be expanded.

Unveiled in December, the government's AU$1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda covers over 20 measures centred on its "Ideas Boom" rhetoric, which Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull believes will incentivise innovation and entrepreneurship, reward risk taking, and promote science, maths, and computing in schools.

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