The idea of "remote farming" over broadband connections holds some appeal for rural early adopters, but there was little evidence of it at the country's pre-eminent agricultural showcase.
Telecom rural strategy manager David Walker reported “a steady stream of farmers” viewing the telco’s exhibits at the Mystery Creek Agricultural Fieldays near Hamilton last week. But while the word “broadband” was used a lot, he found it difficult to suggest rural applications today that would need large bandwidth.
Many of the capabilities on show involved telemetry of one kind or another, says Walker. “There is flow metering in real time; the milk monitor, which we’ve had [at the Fieldays] before, measuring temperature and volume and alerting the farmer if the milk is too hot or too cold.”
Real-time measurements of moisture and other soil data also showed the capabilities of “remote farming”, and Walker sees real-time monitoring of machinery improving maintenance.
But the only application really utilising broadband was a security camera watching a tractor in a shed, he said. “We’re trying not to get too high-tech; we want to show applications that the farmers can [readily] appreciate.”
Telecom is hoping some of the farmers and rural businesses will come up with ideas to utilise broadband in co-operation with Telecom, and there were some preliminary approaches of that kind at the show.
The remote farming developments are being undertaken in cooperation with Timaru IT integrators and rural specialists BayCity New Zealand. Monitoring of operations and the ability to give early warning of malfunction “may mean the end of losses caused by irrigation or refrigeration failures, or unnecessary electricity usage”, says BayCity’s Solon Payne.
An irrigation system under development will monitor the progress of mobile irrigators across a paddock and alert a farmer if they stop – a potential disaster for dairy farmers pumping effluent back onto pasture.
Telecom chief Theresa Gattung turned up at Fieldays to promise that Telecom will invest over $58 million on the rural telecommunications network in the financial year from July 2004.
As part of its capital investment, she says, Telecom will be installing 350 new DSLAM switches, mainly in rural communities, to improve the capacity of local exchanges and increase the reach of its JetStream network.
Some of this development will be assisted by the government’s Project Probe funding.
Telecom had hoped to have a broadband satellite service on show, as a result of a planned collaboration with Asian operator Shin Satellite, but the commercial details of the scheme were still under negotiation last week.
The Fieldays exhibit was also remarkable for the number of children it attracted, Walker says. "I suppose you could see it as an investment in the future, but some of them are obviously very adept at working computers, and at getting them to display different pages from the ones we want to show."