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  • Rikki Lambert

Black spots a blind spot on national telcos as essential service in the bush

With state elections in South Australia in March and Victoria and November, and federal election some time in between, farmers are telling FlowNews24 it's critical good regional telecommunications is the game-changer for their agribusinesses.

GrainGrowers Ltd and Grain Producers SA both say 'black spots' are the number one issue their members are raising with them, as farmers adopt technology and apps to keep track of the conditions and opportunities for their business. Being able to do so across the breadth of their farms is increasingly vital.

Furthermore, the ability to carry a reliable mobile signal can be life-saving amid the myriad of climatic and workplace risks farmers face in the paddock.

The free market view of telecommunications being like any other business needs a re-think in an increasingly connected world, especially when reliable signal can be a life-or-death proposition.

On 14 February, the report of the Regional Telecommunications Review committee tabled in federal parliament on Monday, made 16 key findings about the state of telecommunications in country Australia, and 12 recommendations to improve services.

It says telecommunications should be given the same priority as roads and energy, and classified as an essential service because of its importance in "life or death" situations.

Among the findings was that recent disasters, including floods, fires and cyclones, impact network and power supplies, reducing access to both help and long-term disaster recovery.

The committee recommended the government direct substantial funds to improving network coverage and emergency resilience in vulnerable communities

"Numerous participants in the review have expressed their fear around loss of life or limb during recent bushfires, weather events and floods, compounded by the inability to communicate with emergency services ... or receive real time updates on the rapidly evolving situation."

Tumby Bay mayor Sam Telfer is running for the seat of Flinders on the Eyre Peninsula, aiming to take over for the Liberal Party from retiring incumbent Peter Treloar. He spoke of his passion for co-locating Telstra and Optus equipment on the same tower.

Early in the week, SA Liberal government hailed the construction of a Telstra tower at bushfire-ravaged Keilira, in south eastern SA supported by a state government grant. Yet an Optus service is also on its way to the same location - aided by a federal grant.

Where state and or federal funds have assisted the installation of private commercial services, Telfer argued the state should have some say in how the service is made available, particularly for farmers.

The SA government announced during the week it would spend millions expanding the 'Mesonet' weather station network beyond the Mallee, Riverland and Mid-North to add the Limestone Coast (presumably, the Coonawarra) and Langhorne Creek regions to the network. The primary purpose of the arrangements are to ensure grain growers have the best available live weather data when spraying for weeds so as not to allow spray drift to affect neighbouring farmers, especially winegrape growers. Grapevines are particularly susceptible to spray drift and the initiative is intended to save farmers, collectively, tens of millions of dollars. Yet the ability to access the internet to read the weather data depends on the reliability of mobile signal - a potential waste of taxpayer money if farmers can not access Mesonet everywhere on their farm as weather conditions change.

Graingrowers Ltd chair and Quambatook farmer in northern Victoria, Brett Hosking, told Flow the recent regional telecommunications review had an attractive proposition - 'intercarrier operability'. For instance, a Telstra user could access the Optus network at times such as an emergency, or vice versa. However, Hosking said the potential for emergencies in rural Australia was so common, a case could be made for such signal-hopping on a semi-permanent to full-time basis.

The regional telecommunications minister, Bridget McKenzie, did not respond to queries on this front with her office saying they would not speculate on the upcoming federal budget.

In what could be the last Liberal-National budget for some time, Liberal or National voters in country seats will be hoping for something more substantial than another round of black spot funding.


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