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Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications
10/03/2011
Role and potential of the National Broadband Network

CHAIR —I welcome the representative of the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association to today’s hearing. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. We do not have a written submission from you. I invite you to make an opening statement and then will have a question and answer session.

Ms King —I have had the joy of dealing with some allocated funding from the Tasmanian government. We were one of the four peak bodies that were given $250,000 to promote technology throughout Tasmania. We represent big and small farmers in Tasmania. We have a fairly solid sized membership. One in six jobs in Tasmania are in the agriculture industry or connected areas. A quarter of Tasmania’s land mass is farmed. We have a $1 billion industry here, so it is a substantial addition to the economy, and it could be better.

We have set up a number of subcommittees under our body: the Meat Council, the Wool Council, the Vegetable Council, the Agricultural Council and the Dairy Council. We do not deal specifically with fruit. Fruit Growers Tasmania deal with that and we try to support them—I guess that is the best way of describing that.

Our interests are our members’ interests. We are funded by them totally. The only government money we receive is grants for specific things, as in the NBN rollout. Our members are fairly unique. Today we are talking about internet access. A substantial number of our members are still not getting good telephone access, and that is land and mobile. The chair of our council cannot find a mobile phone that will work on his property. We wait for him to come in during the night or ring his wife to try to get hold of him. It is not a good way to operate. This is the sort of system that these guys operate under every day. Farmers are becoming more mobile. They are up at dawn and out till dusk and are driving constantly and are not there to answer the phone, yet they need access to those sorts of things for marketing.

There are also a number of issues around health in rural areas. It is getting harder to attract doctors and health staff to rural areas. E-health has the potential, from what I have seen so far, to make that link and fill a gap. While it is not ideal in that we would rather have face-to-face contact, it is better than what many of them have got now. A lot of our services in Australia are centralised and there are a lot of big open empty spaces. While Tasmania is small, that still applies to a very large degree.

There are a couple of future issues surrounding NBN that we probably have a concern about. One of them is the flagged intention to sell it off once it is up and running and connected. Again, I am not technically across all the issues, so my understanding of fibre optic is that it is as big a pipe as what you can fit in at either end, so it is unlimited. There might be some very lucky people on the outskirts of a town that will get fibre optic, but there is going to be satellite and wireless. I understand that they are going to put satellites in the sky to help with that, and the latest information is that they will put up what they need to get coverage. That technology will keep changing and changing rapidly in this technical world. I would like to know what sort of guarantee we will have that we will not end up where we are now, where commercialisation and the realities of that and making a dollar will take over and, again, the service will slip behind the rest of Australia in the urban areas.

I have heard that there is some suggestion that, instead of using satellite, they will run the fibre optics through the existing Telstra cabling. I do not know about anywhere else in Australia, but that would be a bit of a disaster here. On a regular basis we have farmers ringing up who have just ploughed through their Telstra cable. I would hate for there to be a new problem with a different sort of cable. Admittedly, it is the fibre optic cable, so at least the bill would not be as big but it is not something that we see as viable. If there is any talk of that, it would not be something that we would support for our members. Fire away.

CHAIR —Thanks. I appreciate that very much. You probably heard the end of the RDA discussion, and there have been some submissions to the committee, even though this is our first public hearing outside Canberra, about some fairly innovative developments in the agriculture industry. I think CSIRO gave us some evidence about remote picking capacities driven by online resources and so forth. From your membership, what sort of feedback do you get about current limitations on things they might be wanting to do and—

Ms King —You mean outside of making a phone call.

CHAIR —We can probably all shake our heads in understanding that dilemma. Clearly, your members would no doubt to some extent be keeping up with developments. What are they saying to you about things they might be wanting to implement now that they are not able to?

Ms King —I hate to roll back your comment, but we are going back to as basic a concept as these guys just being able to access information. Many farmers are not known for their patience and for them to sit and wait for something to download that has got pictures and everything else—10 years ago I was listening to lectures streaming from university off-campus and it used to jump around. That is where they are at now. There have been some wonderful innovations like in Pyengana. Currently one of our dairy farmers is setting up an automated dairy. It would be a godsend for the average dairy farmer. We now have pivot irrigators where, instead of just the whole lot being set up on a timer, each nozzle can be set for a particular soil sample and time. That sort of thing is out there, but we are taking it right back. Even access to information would be a great bonus to these guys because we live in a world where that information is there and they can improve their farming and their skills by accessing that information.

A lady from Tugrah has been developing an educational type of program. It will have video demonstrations for farmers as to when is the right time to pick maize, which is one of the examples they use. They go through it step by step. That will help as we develop new markets and new types of farming. It is changing all the time and that information will be out there for others to access. Yes, we are talking about equipment that is coming about. As you said, there are some wonderful things that will really save farmers time and probably add to their quality of lifestyle. That then goes back to their health. It would be a great thing for these guys not to be out from the crack of dawn to dusk every day by letting technology take some of the workload from them.

CHAIR —The other thing I want to explore before the questioning goes to the rest of the committee is this. Beyond the straight business model and issues for farmers is support for their families. I imagine many of them have kids who are at school trying to study and perhaps partners being connected into their own business world if they find any moment in the day to do what is beyond what is required on the farm. One of the things that the rural doctors said to us was about the importance not only of doctors going out into rural areas but also of having good broadband that supports their partners and families to relocate into rural areas. So I am wondering if with your membership that is an issue that is raised given the circumstances of it and if there is some feedback that you might be able to give us about why that might be an issue for them.

Ms King —As you could imagine, it is very daunting in Tasmania. I know it is not the same set-up in Victoria. I am not sure about other states. As for education, not many of our high schools go to year 12. With a lot of the rural areas the kids have to come into town to do years 11 and 12—to either Hobart, Launceston, Burnie or Devonport. That is a big move for a 16-year-old child. It is a big expense given the vagaries of farming. Education is such an easy thing to get online now if you have got a good connection and can do it quickly. For that matter, it can keep families together and it takes that pressure off. I do not know whether you are a mum, but I find the thought of sending my 16-year-old off to town fairly unsupervised quite daunting. As I said, there is the added expense and the stress of trying to find the extra money to pay for accommodation. There are some government subsidies for that, but it is not an ideal situation. There would be young ones who would be champing at the bit to get into town, so they would still take that option, but there would be a lot who would choose, if they could, to do that from home.

CHAIR —There would be increased retention rates. I was thinking of university, but you were saying about even taking years 11 and 12—

Ms King —Yes. I do not know if you are aware that our retention rates from year 10 are probably among the worst in the country. Whether that is something to do with our unique situation I am not going to speculate. As to whether that would help in the rural sector, I believe so.

CHAIR —That is very useful. Thank you for that.

Mr NEVILLE —Ms King, is your organisation the official Tasmanian branch of the NFF or the official affiliate?

Ms King —We are the official affiliate.

Mr NEVILLE —You heard the evidence of the RDA. Is their evidence indicative of what your organisation perceives, this need for an emphasis on, as Mr Fletcher said earlier, agriculture, primary industry, the use of farm machinery and so on?

Ms King —As I said, I think our needs are a bit more basic than that.

Mr NEVILLE —More basic than that?

Ms King —Yes. It is access to information and that. There are certain types of machinery that it would certainly improve. There is land mapping and soil mapping going on here. It would certainly help there. The department of primary industries here has a very good program called MyFarm, which would help farmers to be able to use information in a better way. I am not fully across the program, but that is my basic understanding.

Mr NEVILLE —I wondered if you were talking about things like GPS utilisation on farms.

Ms King —Yes, that is all part of that.

Mr NEVILLE —Laser levelling.

Ms King —I am sorry, that one is beyond my knowledge.

Mr NEVILLE —Laser levelling—when you are preparing a field for a crop you can not only level it from the point of view of facilitating later harvests but also use it for irrigation because you have everything dead flat. That has been going on in my area for 10, 15 or perhaps even more years. Are you finding a lack of e-technology to drive that thing in Tasmania?

Ms King —That would vary in some places. I have had some anecdotal feedback from farmers. It is probably best utilising the technology. I do not think the technology itself is relying on the internet as much as getting the best information out of that—

Mr NEVILLE —What sorts of speeds have Tasmanian farmers got at present? Are they on ADSL or some sort of a satellite connection?

Ms King —It is a mishmash, a variety of services. The ones who are on ADSL are finding that it is very, very slow. It is not the ADSL that we would be getting here in town. By the time it gets to them everyone has taken their piece out of the pie—again, I am not technically minded—so by the time it gets down to these guys it is at a snail’s pace.

Mr NEVILLE —Is there much wireless and satellite connection here?

Ms King —To be honest, I have done not done any sort of full survey of our members to see who has got what. We do have quite a substantial number who have internet and are using it. We have an electronic newsletter which we send out on a regular basis. We also send out other information through the electronic system. One of our members rang and asked if we could back it off because it takes forever for it all to download. So, while he is appreciative, he asked if we could please print it out and send it to him because he does not have that sort of time at night, when he gets in, to sit down and read emails.

Mr NEVILLE —I take your point about better social interaction in rural areas with high-speed internet. Do I understand you to say that you would like grades 11 and 12 to be delivered by high-speed broadband in the home or do you mean that you would have grades 11 and 12 being supervised from another town, perhaps as an adjunct to a junior high school?

Ms King —It is not that; it is the ability for these kids, if they choose to, to do distant learning. We have a distance learning department here but it relies pretty much totally on internet access for the kids to be able to research their assignments and to hand them in.

Mr NEVILLE —Could you get us the figures for the kids who are doing that?

Ms King —From rural areas?

Mr NEVILLE —Yes.

Ms King —I will certainly try.

Mr NEVILLE —Through the education department.

CHAIR —Even if it is not straight figures, some anecdotal evidence from your members would be fine.

Mrs PRENTICE —Paul has already asked a question about satellite. What do you see NBN delivering that satellite could not for the farmers?

Ms King —I do not understand the technology of it. I was speaking to one of the tech guys from UTAS earlier this week and I talked about the satellites being in the sky. He said, ‘Yes, but there is also still the question of bandwidth coming down.’ That is about where I understood the conversation up to, so I cannot answer that. They are telling us that it will deliver much, much faster than what we have in town now. Without understanding how they are going to do it, we would welcome it with open arms and would really be disappointed if that is not what we are going to get.

Mr SYMON —I have a half question and half comment. It would seem that the NBN to your organisation is more an opportunity to provide some communications where there may be none. So speed is probably not the top priority, as I am hearing it. It is more the fact that many farmers at the moment are struggling for very basic communications access. If you have fibre, wireless or satellite it would sound like in most cases it is a big upgrade. Is that a fair comment?

Ms King —Yes, it is, for any sort of access that is reliable. Speed also still plays that part. As I said, some of them have access but it is so woefully slow that they have not got the time or the inclination to sit down and use it.

Mr SYMON —To me it is a slightly different composition from what we will hear in some of the city areas where it is a question of what speed have you got now or what is the bandwidth versus what you may have. Yours is a much more basic starting point, as I see it.

Ms King —Absolutely.

Mr SYMON —If you had a ubiquitous coverage every one of your members, every farmer, could actually access phone services and internet wherever they were in the state, which would be a great step up from where they are now.

Ms King —It is certainly a step up, yes.

CHAIR —That was a question and a supplementary. Paul, your question?

Mr FLETCHER —My single question has four parts.

CHAIR —Well done! They try to get around me all the time. If you ask it all as one question I will let it through.

Mr FLETCHER —I really just want to make sure that I am understanding correctly what you have put to us. I think you are saying, first of all, that the communication services that are available to your members are patchy and not of the speed and standard that they would like to have. You are not, however, putting to us a specific view on precisely what speed is required or precisely what technology is required—I think that is right, isn’t it?—just that it should improve.

Ms King —Something that is adequate, as you can understand, if you are going to start downloading pictures. The other thing is that we need our farmers to be able to compete in a changing society. One of those parts of developing markets will be able to delve into programs that other people may have. I think the mapping service is one of those. In Smithton there is a chap that does mapping and he said that what had been presented so far—and this is before they had decided what they were going to do with rural areas—was not really going to help the farmers in his area. It is that two-edged thing. We have a very patchy service now. If we do not make it a good one when we do fix it then they will still be behind the eight-ball.

Mr FLETCHER —Another thing I heard you say was that you are not particularly expressing a view on the operation of the market and private sector in metropolitan areas, but you think there is a need for public or government supplementation at the very least in rural areas. Is that a fair summary of what you have said?

Ms King —Definitely.

Mr FLETCHER —The last thing is: I think I am hearing you say that the sooner that something arrives, the better for your members. In other words they have been waiting a long time so a policy response, which is speedy, is always going to be more attractive. Is that a fair summary as well?

Ms King —Not a hundred per cent. It would be good to get something tomorrow but if we need to wait 12 months to get something that is better than what you can give us tomorrow then we will wait 12 months.

CHAIR —It is a balance.

Ms King —If you want to give me a second-hand Vee Dub tomorrow or I wait 12 months and get a Rolls Royce, I know which one I would choose. That is me, personally, but also farmers can be very patient. When you tell them that something is going to be there at a time, if they have to wait for it they will if they know it is coming. I hope that has clarified that.

CHAIR —Thank you for your attendance today. It is very, very useful for us. Particularly because we are looking at the uptake and usage, it is great to hear directly from people who are talking in sectors of our communities. If you are going to provide any additional information, just forward it through to the secretary.

Resolved (on motion by Mr Symon):

That this committee authorises publication, including publication on the parliamentary database, of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.

Committee adjourned at 4.25 pm