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Written By

Bianca de Loryn

College/Division

College of Science and Engineering

Publish Date

21 December 2021

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William Harrington says that people who live in regional and rural areas of Australia shouldn’t be held back with slow internet. This is why he hasn’t only become an internet provider in North West Queensland, he is also researching internet usage on cattle stations for his PhD thesis.

William who lives somewhere in the middle between Townsville and Mount Isa, has always been interested into future-proofing farming technology. This is why he enrolled in a Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) at JCU back in 2003. “I wanted to be able to apply my knowledge to the beef industry out here in this region, and to farming in general, to try and make it better for everyone,” William says.

For his Honours thesis, William designed and built an ear tag device to read the Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags that all cattle in Australia have. The prototype was a fairly large device, William remembers. “I also developed a handheld ear tag reader. That's what actually started out the previous business, Harrington Systems Electronics (HSE). I started that while I was still at JCU,” William says.

When slow internet is bad for business

However, one of the issues that William and his business had to deal with constantly was slow and expensive internet. Even the NBN (National Broadband Network), which only came via satellite to Western Queensland, didn’t change that. William realised that if he wanted faster and more reliable internet at home and in the region, he had to take matters into his own hands.

“Before we started Wi-Sky in 2016, we actually used a couple of ADSL connections and built a microwave link down to our cattle station,” William says. “Then we had to make a decision about how big we were going to get and what we were going to do. So, we approached the Richmond Shire Council and offered to provide them with internet.”

Need high-speed internet? Do it yourself

In order to get fast internet, William’s company had to connect to the fibre-optic cable that was traveling through his town.  The cable is not normally meant to be used by local businesses or private households, as it is one of the main ‘backbones’ of Australia’s internet;  it connects Brisbane and Toowoomba with Darwin, and from there, to the world.

Since there was no local mobile internet infrastructure in the Richmond-Cloncurry region that William’s company could share, they had to build their own microwave towers, each one of them about fifteen to eighteen metres tall.

“Our coverage is from about 80 kilometres north of Richmond and then all the way across to Julia Creek and Cloncurry, and about 200 kilometres south of Cloncurry and about 200 kilometres north of Julia Creek,” William says.  “It's a big area and it's a bit scary actually, but it's also been a lot of fun. We've got a few staff now and we've just put on an operations manager, which is great.”

Outback phone tower.
William Harrington.
William Harrington (right), one of William Harrington's mobile phone towers (left). Images: supplied.

Researching internet usage in Outback Australia

After William had managed to connect the region to fast broadband internet, he realised that he had to go back to JCU and enrol in a PhD if he wanted to help rural and remote farms prepare for the challenges of the 2020s.

“Through my business, I actually met my supervisor, Dr Rachel Hay, probably five or six years ago. I knew what her interests were and that she was interested in my project,” William says. “What I really wanted understand is what role the internet plays in the day-to-day lives and businesses of farmers, and how important it is for them.”

Trouble with the internet in rural Australia

Looking at the NBN satellite connection that most people in rural and remote Australia use to access the internet, William says, “I personally believe it’s holding people back and limiting the ability of farmers to adopt technology, improve their businesses and to disseminate information.”

Another issue that William sees is that most internet plans are too complicated and not easy to understand for ordinary people. “Some people might be less inclined to sign up for an internet plan because they don't understand it. Some are scared to get excess data bills  or they don’t understand what the plans are and what they can and can't do.”

Using filters to categorise ‘big data’

For his PhD research William is currently looking at a massive amount of anonymously collected internet usage data.  “I was able to extract anonymous data from a group of graziers. So, I actually have empirical data, I have quantitative data I am analysing,” he says. This data will help William to better understand the internet usage of many farmers and how much data they are using.

“I have a software that automatically categorises internet usage data based on certain rules, but unfortunately, there aren’t rules for everything,” William says.

“Facebook, Apple and Google, for example, make up 50 per cent of all data usage, with Facebook alone taking up approximately a high 20 per cent of this data consumption,” William says. This means there is still another 50 per cent of the data that is uncategorised. “This is where we'll need some further research. This is also important because we need to understand what farmers need,” William says.

How important is Facebook for a farmer?

Even though William says he now knows that the cattle stations in his research are heavy users of Facebook, Apple and Google, he still doesn’t know what they are actually doing on these sites, as the data collection software doesn’t look at the contents of any communications.

“Certainly, a part of this is most definitely just social interaction. But what about buying things, what about sharing ideas and knowledge?” William says. That is what still needs looking into, and William is thinking about interviewing some of the people who live on the cattle stations in the region.

Rural landscape in Ohio, United States

Looking at internet in ‘rural America’

William is currently planning to take his PhD research project to the United States. He was awarded a Fulbright Future Scholarship to spend four months in Ohio, a US state that also has rural farming communities. The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the research trip, but William is confident that he’ll be able to travel in mid-2022.

In collaboration with Ohio State University, William wants to learn about the technologies that are used to connect rural areas in the United States and compare this with Australia. “I want to learn about some of the policies that the United States has. There's actually some really good work being done in Ohio in terms of rural broadband, also when it comes to involvement by not-for-profit companies,” William says.

Getting access to scholarships at JCU

In regard to the Fulbright Future Scholarship  for his trip to the United States, William says, “I had heard of Fulbright in the past, but before my PhD I wasn't in a position to apply for one. So, when the JCU Scholarships office was offering these information sessions, I thought it was worth having a go.”

William thinks that the research trip to Ohio in 2022 will also be an invaluable experience for his children, who will go through the experience of living abroad at a much younger age then he did. “It’s important for them to realise that we're not the centre of the universe, that there's a lot of other things going on and I think they'll have a ball.”

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