by Imogen Schifferle, Innovation Coordinator, Albury and Wodonga City Councils

In order to build a sustainable domestic economy at the forefront of the digital revolution, we need to address connectivity and digital infrastructure as an essential commodity in the regional Australian supply chain. Here, we take a closer look at some of the challenges that come with ensuring regional locations are not left behind as Australia becomes increasingly reliant on digital technologies.

To unpack this statement, we need to delve into the impact that a lack of digital infrastructure can have on the value of our Gross Regional Product (GRP) on both a domestic and international scale.

Australia’s largest revenue sector in 2020 was manufacturing – this category is then loosely categorised into many sub-sectors, with food product manufacturing the highest-grossing sub-sector in manufacturing.

Regional sales only marginally trumped exports for the greatest consumption in this sector. The Albury-Wodonga Region demonstrated a near identical economic profile in 2020, with the greatest contributor to the GRP being food product manufacturing.

This is due to the yield of the region, drawing on a huge agricultural geographic footprint that produces grains, livestock, fruit, vegetables and dairy.

This sector relies on the physical production and transportation of these goods; and as this demand continues to grow along with our domestic population and global demand, so does the expectation of transparency from inception to production and distribution of these goods domestically and globally.

The manufacturing sector and in particular the food product manufacturing sub-sector is beginning to lead a global trend in creating value in transparency in its supply chain.

We are starting to see a transition in export partnerships, and consumers making conscious decisions to understand the lifecycle of their consumable produce.

The value of the data that supports the delivery and quality outcome of the product is becoming a commodity comparable to the consumable itself. This expectation weighs heavily on our region – and currently, without the capacity to compete, we fear the value of our manufacturing is on a razor edge.

Due to the non-directional structure of connected pathways in the South West NSW Region and the North East Region of Victoria, we forfeit the ability to provide real-time transparent data.

Our region does not have the reliability of data connectivity along our major transport and logistics corridors, disabling the application of machine-to-machine (M2M) solutions that link continuous data reporting and provide transparency from inception to the point of distribution.

If we don’t seek to change the approach to digital infrastructure in Australia’s remote regions, and continue to justify development based on private sector business models that only focus on connections per point of access, we are no longer working towards a common goal of a functional digital economy.

The Murray Region of South West NSW is a large-scale contributor to the functional economic zone of Albury-Wodonga, with agricultural landmass equating to 87 per cent of land use, producing over $11 billion in gross revenue.

Additionally, the region is responsible for 94 per cent of the state’s total value in grape production, along with high quantities in other fruits and grains. These values are calculated at the point of distribution, and do not allow for the costs associated due to the lack of digital infrastructure and loss of quality control capabilities.

Improving access to technologies by bolstering connectivity in our region has the capacity to enhance productivity, contribute to stabilising the impact on our climate, and enable greater efficiencies of utility use.

Meanwhile, the limitations being placed on outputs from our region due to disparate connectivity are holding us back from innovation within our food production industry.

This continues to build the divide between Australia’s most important domestic and international commodities, as well as our ability to truly realise the value of our production. Delivery models of new connected infrastructure have historically focused on a population density model to establish commercial benefit.

This continues to deliver an uneven allocation of network density and building, and almost paradoxical disparities between our regions and our sub-urban densities.

There is currently a strong focus on place-based telecommunication solutions that, while in large, have focused on improving mobile voice and data coverage, have also featured fixed wireless and fibre broadband services with the potential of also improving microwave and fibre backhaul access to communities and businesses.

While this has been very welcome in our region, we are now facing additional challenges in our more remote areas with greater landmass. The digital literacy level in our agricultural belts is not being progressed or facilitated in a way that is meaningful to these communities and their livelihood.

In order to realise a strong and sustainable digital economy, we need a shift to support commodity-based telecommunications solutions, delivering a connected backbone to our food production and manufacturing region.

The Albury-Wodonga region is experiencing new growth corridors created by the sudden population shift that has been a by-product of COVID-19, putting additional pressures on our region to facilitate direct-to-customer produce, with improved quality outcomes.

A focus on improving our digital economy through a commodity-based approach will also facilitate a sense of connection through digital innovation across our industrial sectors, providing community members with a greater sense of purpose through innovative technologies, while dismantling the barriers that face regional Australians.

Connecting with each other towards a common goal, isolated and vulnerable communities will be able to have a positive impact on our local and global economy. This will deliver the true definition of the connection pathways for a sustainable digital economy.

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