Fixing broadband black spots

With all the talk of speeds and feeds or homes and businesses connected to the NBN, there is an urgent to address the broadband black spots hurting the resources sector. Addressing this issue could potentially prove to be a major productivity catalyst.

With all the talk of speeds and feeds or homes and businesses connected surrounding the National Broadband Network (NBN) during the federal election campaign, not enough attention has been paid to the issue of filling in broadband black spots. Yet addressing this will potentially add more to national productivity than any other communications issue.

With the mining and resources industries currently in slow-down mode, companies are looking at their operations and how they can improve them to boost productivity and remain competitive. This is particularly critical for the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) services firms that have grown so spectacularly in recent years but are now bearing the brunt of the slowdown.

The value of resource projects (based on total project cost at completion) is poised to peak in 2015. According to the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (BREE), new project commitments are not keeping pace with completions. However, the value of committed projects remains high, reflecting rising costs.

BREE estimates that higher costs account for about 11 per cent of the value of committed projects. Projects at the feasibility stage are being cancelled or deferred due to concerns over construction costs, uncertainty relating to demand and lower prices. BREE estimates that projects worth about $US150 billion have been delayed or cancelled over the past year.

As an ERP software vendor to the resources sectors, we are talking to a number of companies about how technology can support better productivity. It’s these productivity benefits that are key to stimulating investment in local projects. Using technology to work smarter here and makes it attractive for the big companies to invest in projects in Australia, rather than say South Africa or Mongolia.

The number one way they can do this is by more effectively capturing and sharing information throughout the enterprise to better utilise both assets and workforces. And we’re not just talking about head office operations in the capital cities. A critical part of this is better capturing and provision of data in the field using mobile devices like smartphones and tablets.

We have several customers that are itching to deploy mobile solutions to give them the productivity they need to win projects. Mobile devices with inbuilt GPS can now run business apps for things like work orders, fault reports, confirmation of delivery routes, even work force scheduling and optimisation. Being able to capture data and access information wherever you are, even at a remote mine site, is key to managing operations in real time.

Systems that can talk in real time to head office from these remote locations will significantly benefit the bottom line. It will improve decision making around when assets need to be repaired or replaced, for example, or whether there are too many people on site that could be redeployed elsewhere.

Field workers can take photos and attach diagrams and upload them to someone in another location to make decisions on the spot, rather than lose a week before returning to head office.

Right now, however, many companies are hampered in their ability to share information because of the poor quality, limited capacity or complete lack of communications infrastructure. Communications services exist at selected remote locations -- using satellite connectivity to mine sites, for example. But many remote locations in Australia -- including major transport routes -- remain broadband black spots for mobile devices.

Providing connectivity to these black spots would allow companies to use technology to save hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in their operations. Given that broadband connectivity in places like Africa and Mongolia is far more primitive, the improved productivity it enables will be a major factor in bringing construction costs down to a competitive level in Australia and ensuring these projects go ahead.

Rob Stummer is the managing director of IFS Australia

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