More Towers – $200m needed to plug the gap in rural telecommunications

More-Towers

Mobile communications are critical for farmers, not just for running a business, but also for the health, education and safety of our families. WAFarmers has been advocating for better coverage for the state’s farmers since the launch of the old GSM network 27 years ago.

Since then, over 300 towers have been built across the state’s farming belt, many of them subsidised through state and federal funding.
Today we could not imagine operating without the mobile network. Almost every farmer in the state has black spots— some at the house, others in the corner of a paddock or even across whole farms—but still the network even as it stands is a godsend as a link to the outside world.
WAFarmers sees the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity for the state and federal governments to allocate some of the billions of dollars being spent on stimulus to closing the gaps in the network.

We believe that another $200m would be enough to double the number of towers and utilise other network solutions outside of Telstra and Optus, ensuring every farmhouse and workshop has access to high speed mobile connectivity, along with vastly improved paddock connectivity.

The pay-off will be immense. From children who need to tap into online education to data heavy video for machinery maintenance, big data for productivity improvements to farm safety and accident and emergency support; all are dramatically improved by closing the digital gap in the bush.

WAFarmers believes we need to take the network to the next level. In order to do that we will be asking the state and federal governments to spend a very small portion of their COVID-19 stimulus funding on what effectively has become our number one priority, mobile coverage in regional areas.

With the support of all stakeholders who service the states farmers we believe we have a realistic opportunity of getting the required funding over the next 12 months.

To put the dollars in context, if the federal government announced an additional $1 billion for mobile tower blackspots funding tomorrow, that would amount to just 1/50th of the cost of the National Broadband Network to date or 1/200th the cost of the COVID 19 stimulus announced so far.

$200 million of new funding for towers and mobile solutions in Western Australia would be enough to double the number of towers and really start to plug the gap in coverage and speed for all of the state’s farmers.

Having said this, we as farmers should also be doing our bit to help the existing network cope with the growing burden of kids needing online home schooling by leading the way in turning off any illegal repeaters we have in the farmhouse.

Illegal mobile repeaters brought for half the cost of the legal $800 Telstra / Optus Go repeaters are decimating the signal output of their towers. We cannot make our case for more funding when both the government and network providers are able to argue that there is plenty of capacity with the current network if only people would stop using illegal boosters.

Everyone knows the network is nowhere as complete as the Telstra and Optus maps claim, and the lack of complete coverage means desperate farmers have been forced to turn to any means possible to boost their signal.

Sites selling the illegal repeaters often disguise their products as legitimate, slapping a teleco’s logo on an unauthorised machine. Many people using these devices may not even know they’re breaking the law.

Although those using the illegal repeaters baulk at the additional $400 cost of the Telstra and Optus Go repeaters, the potential cost of using an illegal repeater is far greater, with the federal government handing out $165k fines to anyone who is caught using one. The Telecommunications Act cuts no slack for those caught messing with the spectrum or signals and it is relatively simple for the regulator to detect who’s using them via a scanner.

You can check whether your repeater is an allowed model by checking the branding. If it’s not the Telstra GO or Smart Antenna device then it’s a non-approved illegal device. If you bought it online for $600 or less, you could be unwittingly on the wrong side of the law.

If you’re unsure, get in contact with your mobile provider. You can find more information about legal and illegal repeaters on the federal regulator’s website at acma.gov.au/devices-we-prohibit
With the recent cry from regional communities needing more data and faster speeds due to isolation from the virus, the federal government will be stepping up its efforts to track down and eliminate illegal repeaters. I am calling on people to do the right thing: check your booster, dispose of any illegal repeaters and purchase a legal one.

Those who are not familiar with legal boosters can look at the Telstra/Optus models; Cel-Fi Go Repeater Mobile or Stationary Units, high gain mobile antennas, very high gain fixed antennas and the smart internal antenna unit. Many farmers have now purchased multiple of all of the above to kit out the house, workshop, vehicles and machinery—staying legally connected with the best technology is a normal part of running a modern farm business.

In turn we will be putting the case to government to double the number of towers in the bush and support other new providers with alternative mobile solutions through a $200m mobile fund to cover the states farming regions.

Agriculture has not stopped.

Rhys Turton – President, WAFarmers

While the rest of the Australian economy is suffering from the fall out of the Covid-19 virus, the one shining light is our farm sector.

Western Australian farmers are on the job. We are planting, growing, shearing, and harvesting the food and produce that puts food on the table of the community.

Despite the challenges of getting tractor drivers to farms or the issues around supply of key parts and inputs, our industry is gearing up for a big seeding to grow a big crop in 2020.

Early rains have given farmers across the state a shot of confidence in these dark times. Most are ready to roll for winter planting, which means cash flowing into regional communities as money is spent employing workers to drive tractors across the state.

The more farmers spend, the better for our regional communities and local businesses. From the local tyre shop and mechanic to the meat processing and food packing sectors—for every job we have on farm, there is another six up and down the supply chain.

As I outlined to the Premier last week at a COVID-19 roundtable, so long as the government recognises Agriculture as a key service, we can keep the wheels turning and our people working.

In turn the Premier confirmed that the states agriculture sector is a critical service provider and an essential sector, giving us priority access for moving people, produce and products around the state.

The state’s agricultural sector can roll on through this crisis with minimal changes; a few more processes around biosecurity and health, and a few less formalities to close the deal. The old school handshake is out, and the electronic handshake is in, but a deal is still a deal.

From ordering in a tanker of fuel to trading our grain, we are still in business. Seven days a week, we are on the job— from calling out the electronic technician to reboot the tractor’s computer, to chasing up the shearers, to finding replacement tractor drivers.

As farmers we are willing to do our bit and employ more Western Australians who are looking for work to drive our tractors and move our livestock. I made the point to the Premier that over the year there will be a steady flow of semi-skilled and skilled jobs available across the state in a whole range of Agricultural sectors. We are still employing.

As a result, we have asked the government to help us identify employees with the right skills. If this requires retraining or skills qualifications, we will work with training providers to target skills gaps to ensure people are farm work ready.

This is the time for the government to have a hard look at what it can do to support the one sector outside of health and government that is growing and employing.

In the accompanying article I have announced our call for a $200m to double the existing mobile network. As part of our response to the virus we are looking for the next round of government stimulus to put dollars into regional communities that will support agriculture.

Shovel ready projects from tripling local council road work budgets for 2020-21 to fast track the upgrade of gravel roads, to bringing back the rural water supply scheme offering a 25% subsidy for farmers willing to build 20 000m3 dams to drought proof their farms and take permanent pressure off the rural water pipe network.

These are all ready-set-go stimulus projects that don’t require reams of government approvals to get graders grading, dozers crawling and people working.

Our message to government is simple: we are hard at work, and government should ensure that some of the money they spend in economic stimulus goes to supporting the one sector of the economy that is capable of growing and employing people during a crisis like this.

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