AS we often say out in the bush, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Having never personally done so I repeat this at face value, but I can testify as to how innovative rural people are when it comes to problem solving. Such is the case when it comes to the National Broadband Network (NBN) and the inequitable service being presented to rural Australia.
LAST spring, amidst the green rolling hills of central Victoria, a group of farmers was given a sneak preview of a solar-powered broadband repeating system that allows a daisy-chain radio network to be realised. The prototype has been developed by a Bendigo based start-up, aptly named AgCloud.
Showcasing his new purpose built shearing shed and workshop, fourth generation stud merino breeder, Jock MacRae, set the scene by describing his frustration at not being able to utilise the full benefits of the NBN in his business.
Empathising with Jock’s frustration and that of many other rural clients in similar circumstances, Grant Sutton, a self-employed IT professional from Bendigo, recognised the problem and, with the help of some colleagues, found a solution.
“Grant was able to help us connect to the NBN when most providers were saying it couldn’t be done. Once connected to the residence, he was able to take it via a hilltop to the farm infrastructure a few kilometers down the road at Elphinstone,” explains Jock.
“This has delivered low cost high speed internet right across the farm. From operations in the sheep yards and cattle yards, the workshop and shearing shed, right down to the monitoring of an individual animal, this is the solution I had been looking for.”
Grant says that Jock's case is just one of many.
“Neighbours separated by a single hill are finding that one is eligible for high speed internet services while the other is relegated to either congested Next-G or slow and expensive satellite services,” explains Grant.
Over the past year Grant has collaborated with a local team of experts to develop the proto-type and co-founded a new business aptly named AgCloud
“Our aim has been to address the inequality by repeating services over hills and terrain to fill that void in the service difference. By linking high-speed NBN we’re exploring what high-quality internet can do for them.”
In the case of the prototype service established at Jock’s property, the benefits are already significant particularly in the area of farm security and NBN provision.
“We’ve installed some fixed cameras and gate tags at key points around the property and I can now access live data and receive alerts via my smart phone,” says a clearly delighted Jock who is ever conscious of protecting and monitoring his assets.
All this has been achieved by simply installing a repeating service at the highest point of the property, something that I overlooked when driving in but paid special attention to on the drive out. Solar panels overcome remote power issues and there is the potential to also install wind turbines to ensure continuity in the winter months.
But what happens if the connection is broken or equipment tampered with I wonder?
“Notifications are immediately received by the client,” responds Grant whose expert team has thought through the process carefully.
“Farm sensing products are also solar powered and can be used for a vast number of sensing requirements,” he adds. “Anything from silo levels, livestock locations and environmental conditions can be recorded into the cloud and understood by the farmer from anywhere in the world.”
For farmers who have large remote properties and like to take time off with their families, this is particularly good news. From Jock’s perspective he will be able to check live feed and respond to alerts from wherever he might be.
Having collaborated with electronic specialists, programmers, and manufacturers, Grant has successfully developed a prototype service and products that surpass any off the shelf hardware currently available on the market.
Capital funding is AgCloud’s next big challenge.
“So far we’ve developed the system from our own pockets with zero return,” says Grant who is sincerely grateful to the local individuals and businesses that have generously given their time and resources to get the prototype to this point.
“We are now looking for some serious funding to take us to the next level and roll this service out Australia wide and potentially to a global market.”
Local community leaders and the Victorian Farmers Federation are excited. Jaala Pulford, the Victorian Minister for Agriculture, has also agreed to drop into Jock’s property for a demonstration.
The burning question is, will funding bodies step up to the mark or will this innovation go down the path of many other Australian prototypes and be hijacked for the benefit of overseas competitors?
I sincerely hope it is the former.
KERRY ANDERSON: A businesswoman, author, and community advocate from Central Victoria, Kerry is passionate about rural and regional Australia. She works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE
Kerry recently published her first book with 20 inspiring case studies for rural communities and business people READ MORE