Game changer: The role of broadband connectivity in Australian farms and why we need to get this right!

Author: | Date: 07 Feb 2013

David Lamb
Precision Agriculture Research Group, University of New England

Take home messages

  • Agriculture, and farming is a part of Australia’s digital economic future.
  • High-speed internet connectivity and a national broadband communications network creates new opportunities for smart services into farms around education and extension, health, business support, precision agriculture as well as veterinarian and agronomic support, marketing, safety and work flow.
  • Australia’s farmers are potentially a large component of Australia’s teleworking population, and consequently the design of our communications systems and accessibility must support the way we are likely to work.

Background and scope of this presentation:

Deloitte Access Economics recently published an extensive review of ‘telework’ for the Commonwealth Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE. 2011a), highlighting a considerable range of direct and indirect economic benefits to the national economy, including time and cost savings from travel, office cost savings, increased labour force participation and retention of relocating staff. Six definitions of telework discussed, and these include snippets such as ‘flexible working, […] undertaken outside of the traditional office environment’, ‘work done from a remote location’ and ‘conduct their tasks from home’. In all definitions this work is enabled by telecommunications/ICT. Teleworking features in Australia’s Digital Economic Strategy (DBCDE, 2011b); indeed a stated goal is that by 2020 ‘Australia will have doubled its level of teleworking [and] that at least 12% of Australian employees [will have] a teleworking arrangement with their employee’. A national, broadband, telecommunications network (a specific example being ‘the NBN’) is viewed as a key enabler of teleworking.

With this in mind, let us play a different movie; one about our farming sector.  Our farming sector includes more than 130,000 farms, most of which are operated ‘on location’, and many as ‘mum and dad’ operations (NFF 2012).  Communication plays a significant role in how we operate our farms, be it via the landline or the ubiquitous mobile (and often ‘smart’ phone). But we are talking not just about voice communications. Smart phones ‘apps’ are playing an increasing operational role on farms including varietal selection, seeding, fertiliser, herbicide management, livestock management, sales records to name a few (Ag Excellence Alliance Inc, 2012). Mobile phones (via tethering) and landlines are also the gateway to the internet, and web-based services. Of course this is where an NBN comes in; providing high speed internet access to end users, like farmers. Recent surveys have indicated that farmers are no less likely to take up the internet than their city cousins, 74% compared to 77% in a 2007 AgScan survey (ACMA 2008), respectively. Presumably, the need to offer broadband connection into farms is just as strong as the need to connect our city cousins- right?  Or it is even stronger?

Farming is, potentially, teleworking par excellence. However, strictly speaking, the various definitions of teleworking imply a subordinate worker operating remotely from their ‘HQ’, so here we are talking about teleworking in reverse. A farm is generally its own HQ, and it is surrounded by a group of potential teleworkers; all feeding in to the operational side of farming.  In order to understand this point, this presentation will outline some of the ‘smart services’ that could potentially feed into a farm, via the internet connectivity.

Interestingly, the lack of reliable communications infrastructure across rural Australia has seen an enormous array of clever monitoring technologies developed for farms aimed at working around the exigencies of our rural communications networks. Much of the static and roving sensors currently on farms (for example soil moisture probes and remote machinery diagnostics) involve radio or mobile telemetry, sending packets of data to remote servers to be rendered into some form of interpretable information. It is here that a national broadband communications network (NBN) comes in. Rather than being a competitor to these technologies, a NBN forms a vital link in the chain of converting data to actionable information and getting much of what is now ‘off-farm intelligence’ back in the hands of the farmer, while at the same time avoiding the need to overload farmers with the technicalities of getting the data in the first place. Ultimately mobile or wireless radio-transferred data must eventually be converted into interpretable information and actionable prompts; all of these require data rendering and collaborative interrogation by third party service providers and the end user – “the farmer”. A video link between a farmer and their remote service provider (note, remote; this time being ‘remote from the farm’) including the display and interrogation of active data is one example of how this loop is closed. NBN-enabled sentinel vision systems and immersive video conferencing capabilities, all targeting safety in hazardous locations (yards, chemical and machinery sheds, farm dams, paddocks) or supporting in-situ diagnoses and trouble-shooting (for example,  machinery and a remote mechanic, sick animals and a remote veterinarian) can help make our farms safer and more efficient places to work. And then there is telehealth, education and extension and so on. Ultimately a farm could do with the capacity to export and import high volumes of source data and information through remote, collaborative interaction with experts outside the farm gate. And, isn’t this where the NBN fits in? Therefore, shouldn’t Australian farms be ‘front and centre’ in terms of the debate on how we design, and ultimately offer a national broadband network?

This presentation aims to outline the case for connecting farms, by introducing a number of key operational concepts and then exploring the opportunities that broadband connectivity into farms has to offer. It will also discuss, in reverse, what connected farms have to offer to the outside world. It will also outline a number of cautionary messages in relation to how broadband connectivity can (and should) work into our Australian farms, including a discussion of business models and system architecture.


ACMA (2008) “Telecommunications today, Report 3: Farming sector attitudes to take-up and use” (Australian Communications and Media Authority) January 2008, 17 pages.

Ag Excellence Alliance Inc, (2012) “Smartphone apps for smart farmers”, (Ag Excellence Alliance Inc), 120 pages.

DBCDE (2011a) “Next Generation Telework: A literature review”, Report by Deloitte Access Economics for Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE, Canberra Australia), 70 pages.

DBCDE (2011b) “#au20 National Digital Economic Strategy”, Australian Government  (DBCDE, Canberra Australia), 68 pages.

NFF (2012) “NFF Farm Facts: 2012” (National Farmers Federation, Australia), 34 pages.

Contact details

David Lamb
02 6773 3565