Vodafone, RAI, Barnaby Joyce combine on regional telco report

Vodafone and Regional Australia Institute have said telcos, government, business, and local communities must work together to bring reliable and fast internet access to regional areas.

Vodafone Australia has released a report on regional telecommunications based on a case study of Northern Inland, New South Wales, spruiking collaboration between local communities, government, business, organisations, universities, local councils, and telecommunications providers to bring technology-driven social and economic benefits to rural areas.

The report, Digital Futures: A case study of the Northern Inland region of NSW [PDF], written in conjunction with the Regional Australia Institute (RAI), suggests how other regional areas can participate in the digital economy by leveraging mobile communications services.

"Mobile communications are especially important to regional Australia, to enable people to keep in contact across vast distances and access emergency services, as well as to grow businesses and create jobs," Vodafone chief strategy officer Dan Lloyd said.

"We must work together to deliver modern infrastructure so the benefits of mobile communications can be realised in our regions."

The report said digital literacy in these areas could be improved with ubiquitous, affordable, reliable, and real-time communications services.

In a foreword to the report, Australian Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce noted that only through "reliable, modern telecommunications infrastructure", such as that being provided through the federal government's National Broadband Network (NBN), will the more rural and remote parts of Australia attain digital economic growth, and increase its number of jobs.

"Machine-to-machine [M2M] technology can help farmers to work smarter and faster, with more precision and accuracy, and ultimately improve their livelihoods. But this technology needs better connectivity to benefit farmers and increase profitability," Joyce said.

"The NBN will play a pivotal role in coming years by connecting Australians living outside the cities to quality broadband for the first time. The rollout of the NBN in Armidale and Tamworth has been a great enabler of industry and business growth, and it has been encouraging to see local groups working together to improve the community's ability to harness the benefits of the NBN."

Vodafone Australia CEO Inaki Berroeta has previously outlined plans to tap the agriculture sector's potential through telecommunications reform, pushing M2M as an answer for farmers in February.

"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 in a speech to the Digital Transformation in Agriculture Breakfast at Parliament House.

"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."

In December, Vodafone also announced a partnership with the National Farmers' Federation 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.

In his foreword, Joyce also said that while the NBN is bringing fixed-line broadband coverage to regional areas, the mobile blackspot program is stepping in to provide mobile broadband.

"The government's Mobile Black Spot Programme is increasing mobile coverage and competition in regional Australia. Round One of the program leveraged the government's AU$100 million investment into a total funding package of AU$385 million via substantial co-contributions from Vodafone and Telstra, state and local governments, and third parties," the deputy prime minister added.

"It also means Vodafone and other providers can make additional investments and extend their mobile networks further into regional Australia and provide greater competition."

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 Australia.

Vodafone switched on its first cell tower at White Rock Wind Farm, in the New England region of NSW, in December, and in February revealed the locations that it would construct and switch on by the end of July. As described in its full rollout schedule, Vodafone is building 18 sites in the Northern Inland region for round 1.

Berroeta earlier this month confirmed that Vodafone also plans to participate in round 2 of the program, adding that the federal government's Universal Service Obligation (USO) funding should instead be spent on the mobile blackspot program.

The USO is now facing governmental review thanks to the Regional Telecommunications Independent Review, which tabled its report to Parliament in October.

Vodafone has also been expanding its own 4G network nationwide by purchasing AU$68 million worth of 1800MHz spectrum and refarming its 850MHz spectrum band to bring coverage to regional and metropolitan Queensland, NSW, and the Australian Capital Territory.