Farmers trial new tech to keep equipment running as 3G shutdown looms

Farmers trial new tech to keep equipment running as 3G shutdown looms

As the shutdown of the 3G network approaches, millions of Australians are switching over their phones to make sure they are compatible with 4G, but farmers are facing a much bigger problem.

Farmers have a range of equipment that relies on 3G signals to work and as the 3G towers around the country are switched off water pumps, weather stations, soil monitors and security systems have stopped working.

New South Wales grain grower Ian Carter has successfully upgraded four of his tractors but now he is wondering about the irrigation sensors and the monitors on bores and tanks on his Quirindi farm.

“Only the other day I suddenly thought, ‘Oh, our automatic weather station has got a modem in it as well’,” he said.

“It will have to be upgraded.”

Mr Carter said costs were mounting but the quality of his phone service was declining.

“We seem to be in a bit of an area of flux at the moment, because nothing is working as well as it was,” he said.

Some big machinery relies on 3G signals to operate, but big companies are rolling out 4G hardware and software fixes.(Supplied)

Is 3G reception getting worse?

Vodafone has already turned its towers off and Optus will follow suit in September, marking the end of 3G in Australia.

3G accounts for only 1 per cent of the traffic on the network as customers migrate to 4G and 5G, according to Telstra’s Southern NSW Region general manager Chris Taylor.

He said Telstra had committed to extending 4G and 5G to the areas defined by their coverage maps, but that would not help people in black spot areas or people outside the mapped zones who were still getting 3G service.

Mr Taylor said Telstra was doing some “optimisation work” ahead of its June 30 shut down.

“We’re changing antenna designs, and there are software changes in the network that will push the 4G coverage out to the extremities of 3G,” he said.

Phil Epthorp installing a microwave link.(Supplied: NB-Tec)

Some people directly underneath the upgraded towers are experiencing problems because the new antennas are angled to project the signal into more densely populated areas.

Phil Epthorp, who runs a tech company called NB-Tec, said some landholders under the towers could find themselves in what’s called the “Fresnel zone”.

“In layman’s terms, that’s a black spot underneath the tower, which usually extends roughly two kilometres radius from the tower, depending upon topology,” he said.

Farmers are looking for ways to keep their farms online as the 3G shutdown looms.(Supplied: Farmbot)

Could satellites be the solution?

Low earth orbit (LEO) satellite services such as Starlink are delivering internet services to properties in remote areas, but tech experts are divided on how useful they are on big farms.

Mr Epthorp said the signal would only extend 1-2km from the house and devices at the other end of a farm may not have enough power to send data back.

His company is working on technology that could extend the range to up to 80km, but it is a long way from being commercialised.

Farmbot is an Australian company delivering remote monitoring equipment here and in the United States and Canada.

Andrew Coppin says his company has developed technology for the for real-time monitoring and control of farm equipment.(Supplied: Farmbot)

Chief executive Andrew Coppin said a solution for connectivity after 3G was turned off could be the low-powered NB IoT offered by Telstra, or 4G or satellite.

He said Telstra was doing a good job of informing people where NB IoT coverage was and how that would work.

“Ultimately it will be cheaper than some of the satellite communication systems, [but] a lot of the low Earth orbit satellite solutions still have latency of three to four hours,” Mr Coppin said.

Farmbot has developed equipment for real-time monitoring of water assets that can also turn diesel electric or solar pumps on or off and link to them to water storage. 

“So instead of just pumping for 12 hours and letting water run on to the ground, you just pump until it’s full and then the pump turns itself off,” Mr Coppin said.

Land Watch Australia is installing systems that extend the range of internet connections.(Supplied: Land Watch Australia)

Can the range be extended?

Some companies are using Wi-Fi to deliver connectivity to farms over large areas, including Land Watch Australia, which is installing security equipment on large remote sheep and cattle stations and smaller properties with absentee landholders.

Co-founder John Hill says the company take the internet connection from the house and sends it 30km to a receiver.

“It’s all based on line of sight,” he said.

“We’ll usually use a repeater station up on a hill or a big tower somewhere — as long as those two devices can see each other, then that’s as good as running a cable.”

Farmers are using technology to monitor bores, operate pumps and keep an eye on their farms.(Supplied: Farmbot)

Mr Hill said flat properties posed more of a problem.

“Anything over 10 to 15 kilometres, the curve of the Earth gets in the way and you can’t achieve line of sight anymore,” he said.

The federal government’s $15-million dollar On Farm Connectivity Program provides grants to cover 50 per cent of the costs, which Mr Hill says is encouraging many landholders to experiment.

Customers on the Telstra mobile service can find out if their phone will continue to operate after the 3G closure by texting the number 3 to 3498.

Stories from farms and country towns across Australia, delivered each Friday.

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