Digital divide set to widen

Digital divide set to widen

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NEW TECHNOLOGY: The report found there was likely to be little market-driven improvement in mobile coverage, and 5G technology was unlikely to replace 4G in many locations.

NEW TECHNOLOGY: The report found there was likely to be little market-driven improvement in mobile coverage, and 5G technology was unlikely to replace 4G in many locations.

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A new report presents a gloomy picture of Central Highlands telecommunications infrastructure.

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A new report into digital connectivity in Victoria's central highlands has found agriculture continues to be hampered by poor mobile phone and broadband coverage.

The Central Highlands Digital Plan, covering the region's six councils, identified gaps in digital infrastructure and recommended how they could be addressed.

"The digital infrastructure is unable to meet the region's needs, with all locations found to have a major or intermediate supply shortfall in fixed access broadband services for business users," the report found.

"Rising demand in the face of a largely static supply will mean the unmet demand situation will worsen."

Read more: Experts dash hopes for state-wide mobile phone coverage

The digital plan, launched by the Central Highlands Regional Partnership, is seen as a comprehensive overview of digital infrastructure and supply shortages across Ballarat, Moorabool, Golden Plains, Ararat, Pyrenees and Hepburn cities and shires.

Partnership Chair George Fong said the document would help councils advocate for improvements in Central Highlands and also across all of regional Victoria.

"Digital technology and infrastructure are fundamental to the economic and social growth of regional Victoria, and it is essential that our businesses and communities are not left behind," Mr Fong said.

Service shortfall

The report found a major shortfall in services between Ballarat and Daylesford, with intermediate mobile phone shortfalls in the area between Ballarat, Ararat and Lake Bolac.

Among the key issues identified was inadequate mobile coverage in the region, with users recently registering 268 blackspots across the Central Highlands.

Also of concern was the lack of availability of adequate, affordable business-grade telecommunications and the low take-up of Internet of Things applications in the region.

All locations were found to have a major or intermediate supply shortfall for LP-WAN IoT supported services.

LP-WAN's are a type of wireless telecommunication network, designed to allow long-range communications at a low bit rate among connected objects, such as sensors operated on a battery.

The report found in the next three to five years, there was likely to be little market-driven improvement in mobile coverage, and 5G technology was unlikely to replace 4G in those locations.

It found local governments and regional businesses would need to consider leveraging government assets for cost-effective bespoke solutions.

The commonwealth and state governments should develop more flexible mobile blackspot programs tailored to the region and its needs.

Poor standard

Crop and livestock producers in the Tatyoon area, south of Ararat, agreed the report presented an accurate picture of the poor quality of services.

Mixed farmer Peter Armstrong said he'd noticed, in the last month, phone calls kept dropping out.

"I really find it hard to believe, in this day and age and with all the equipment we have out there at the moment, that we can't manage proper signal strength."

Broadband was "adequate, but slow.

"Because everything is getting so technical, you want to be able to get access to information more efficiently," Mr Armstrong said.

"For example, your boom spray is full of chemicals, and you can't get it to work.

"But you can't get access to technicians, because your phone service doesn't work."

He called for more phone towers to be installed in strategic areas.

"They are very good at putting up wind turbines, right, left and centre - how about putting up telecommunications facilities on them, at the same time?" Mr Armstrong said.

He was also critical of the time it took to get problems fixed.

"It takes so long to get to talk to anyone, everyone loses interest," he said.

"We've got better things to do with our day than to sit here and wait for people to turn up."

Sam King said he was only 25 kilometres south of Ararat but said telecommunications were "pretty ordinary.

"It's getting worse here too," Mr King said.

"The phone rings, but I can't reliably talk to anyone in my house or my whole precinct of sheds and machinery yard.

"It's always been awful, but it's getting worse."

He agreed calls were dropping out more frequently.

"We rely on these things more than we did, in the past."

Poor telecommunications hampered on property bull sales, particularly when it came to phone bidding on the top lots.

"Internet services are imperative for Auctions Plus, so that was making it quite hard, as well," he said.

Poor telecommunications also hampered effective data collection for the property's cropping and livestock operation.

Regional Development Minister Jaclyn Symes welcomed the publication of the first regional plan.

"Regional communities and businesses, through the Regional Partnerships, have made it clear that digital connectivity is a must-have for their future economic and social development," Ms Symes said.

"The Victorian Government recognises this and understands the challenges regional and rural communities have faced to achieve adequate services to meet their needs.

"To help address this digital divide, we have invested over $130 million across the state since 2014 through the Connecting Victoria suite of initiatives to improve digital connectivity across our regions."

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