Episode 1

n this episode we’re talking about connectivity, the basis of all ag tech and often the biggest hurdle for farmers and businesses to overcome. 

We’ll be asking Food Agility chief scientist professor David Lamb how close we are to connectivity headaches being a thing of the past. 

We’re also speaking to Dan Winson, founder of Zetifi, a Wagga Wagga company who extends wi-fi coverage across farms. 

And to Andrew Watt, from Hutcheon and Pearce, about how Zetifi is working for their business and customers. 

SPEAKERS: Olivia Calver (Host), Dan Winson (Zetifi),  Andrew Watt (Hutcheon and Pearce), Prof. David Lamb (Food Agility) 

Olivia Calver (Host): This podcast is recorded on Wiradjuri country we acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land the, the Wiradjuri people, and pay our respect to elders past and present and extend our respect to all First Nations peoples listening today.

Hello and welcome to the Agtech Finder Podcast, where we hear from entrepreneurs at the forefront of innovation and the producers who are using their technology on-farm. I’m your host Olivia Carver, and over the coming weeks we’ll be diving into everything from remote sensors to autonomous robots, and farm management platforms. The companies that we speak with and the products that are highlighted can all be found on the Agtech Finder website, a Food Agility CRC initiative, and Australia’s most comprehensive database of agtech products. Today we’ll be looking at connectivity, the basis of all agtech and often the biggest hurdle for farmers and businesses to overcome when it comes to adoption. We’ll be speaking to Dan Winson, founder of Zetifi, a Wagga Wagga company who extends Wi Fi coverage across farms. 

Dan Winson (Zetifi): Farmers from all around Australia have been working with us from the very start because it is such an urgent problem for them. And farmers were just happy to see someone having a proper crack at solving that 

 Olivia Calver (Host): We’ll also be speaking to Andrew Watt from Hutchinson and Pearce about how Zetifi is working for their business and customers. But first I have Food Agility Chief Scientist Professor David Lamb joining me to give us a bit of background on a connectivity. Dave, you’ve worked in agtech for more than 25 years now. How important is connectivity when it comes to agtech adoption? 

Prof. David Lamb (Food Agility): Oh look it’s an absolute deal maker or deal breaker. I mean, for many years I’ve been working on individual technologies and the science behind them and it was getting to the point that they were going nowhere in terms of deployment on farm or in agrifood production because of connectivity. So, if you think of devices like soil moisture probes, miniature weather stations on-farm, you know, gate open close sensors, animal scanners in the yards, security cameras or you name it, they all need to be connected to the cloud somehow. And this means connectivity. And then when we want to use it, you know, the on-farm decision makers want to put that data to work, well again, they’ve got to be connected to that same cloud environment. So no connectivity means no agtech.  

Olivia Calver (Host): Dave, do you think we’re getting any closer to solving the problem? Will we ever reach a point where connectivity is not an issue on Australian phones? 

Prof. David Lamb (Food Agility): Look, I’m very confident that we will reach that state. We are getting closer and actually the convergence is getting faster every day. If you think about up until 15 years ago, mobile phone network connectivity – or the lack of it in our rural and regional areas – was hamstringing our ability to deploy and derive value from agtech on-farm. In the sheds, pack houses and on machines.Then we had the appearance of on-farm telemetry networks and Lorowan connecting devices from distant paddocks back to our farm offices, but also NBN principally connecting farm office and sheds and other workspaces through sky muster to the internet. And then other satellites have come along and now of course you’ve got low earth orbit satellites that will pick up and deliver small messages from whatever devices pretty well anywhere on earth. Meanwhile, mobile connectivity from our telco providers, and our second tier telco providers working directly with farmers to establish dedicated long range point to point links, they’re all improving day by day. So at the end of the day, then comes along game changers like Zetifi for example, pushing Wi Fi quality links out over distance of kilometres. And of course, we’ve got low earth orbit high-speed broadband through providers like Star Link. So yes, we are reaching that desired end state and quicker than we thought. 

Olivia Calver (Host): Do you think that Star Link has been this real game changer here? It seems like you know, it was sort of spoken about in whispered terms amongst farmers for a long time going, have you heard of this? It actually works! And that’s changing the game, isn’t it for people suddenly to have city style speed of internet in the middle of rural areas.  

Prof. David Lamb (Food Agility): In the middle of nowhere. A joyful one. Not only in terms of the product or service offering their own right, but in terms of the wake up call it’s given the broader marketplace, which is good for business all around. There’s nothing like competition. I mean, Star Link now has got more than 100,000 active subscribers in Australia, which pretty damn good for two years of presence. It seems subscribers are generally very, very happy with that particular product. Star Link as a technology is a real game changer. Star Link as a market disrupt that and creating increased competition and healthy competition, existing telecommunication service providers is another positive disruption. So yeah, they’re making a difference. 

Olivia Calver (Host): There’s also in the connectivity space, the government and major telcos who as you’ve been saying, been big players. What role do you think they’re taking when it comes to solving this problem? And do you think they’re doing enough? 

Prof. David Lamb (Food Agility): They are all waking up and doing useful stuff. The telcos in particular recognise these other modes of communications are out there and they’re actually doing a lot of work to harmonise with these organically grown products orandsolutions – and that’s a great thing. You know, telecommunications is critical infrastructure, just like roads and rail and equal in weight and import to our emergency services in a way when you think about. And so the in terms of rural and regional in particular farming context, when it comes to supporting uptake, an opportunity of what technology offers, you know, state and federal governments are also you know, pulling their weight now. Commonwealth Department of Infrastructure, Transport Regional Development, Communications and the arts (the new department) they’ve got their on-farm connectivity programme applications are now open if any of the listeners are interested. For a tech connectivity equipment providers, you know, providers can receive rebates. For equipment like you know, external antennas, repeaters, boosters, gateways that are sold are primary producers, which means that our producers will have their costs defrayed and that’s a good thing. 

Olivia Calver (Host): Well, thank you so much for joining us today. Really appreciate your insights. 

Prof. David Lamb (Food Agility): No worries. Thanks for having me, Olivia. 

Olivia Calver (Host): We now have founder and CEO of Zetifi, Dan Winston joining us. Dan, are you able to start by telling us a bit about how and why you started Zetifi? 

Dan Winson (Zetifi): Of course. Yes, Zetifi is a wireless networking startup. I’m a wireless networking engineer. I was working here in Wagga Wagga at the TAFE teaching the next generation of engineers how to build networks and how to programme Cisco and Ubiquity Equipment or companies that make really good wireless networking equipment. And I was reading an article about a farmer who had built his own Wi Fi network across his farm including a 53 metre tower up in Dirrenbandy. And from the classroom I ended up actually calling up this gentleman, Andrew Seville, and asking a bunch of questions about why a farmer might do that. And of course, being from Wagga I had some understanding of the challenges of connectivity once you’re outside of the city, but I didn’t realise honestly just how bad it was or the impact that it had on farmers and on their operations and their ability to adopt technology, their ability to operate safely and productively. And it turned out that there was not only a business opportunity, there was an opportunity to start a startup. Zetifi has grown from a side project where I was using the opportunity to build networks on farms to keep my skills sharp over the past four years into now a team of 30. So we we were very grateful for a lot of early support that we had from farmers who were buying our products and also from government who gave us lots of different grants to develop the technology. And all of that allowed us to demonstrate enough traction to raise a $12 million Series A last year that was led by Telstra and Grain Corp. So with those investors on board, we’re now preparing for mass market launch and very excited to be taking our technology to the world. 

Olivia Calver (Host): does that mean a ‘mass market launch’? What is sort of the numbers of adopters so far? And what can we be looking at in the future? 

Dan Winson (Zetifi): So over the past four years, we’ve deployed more than 1000 devices. So it’s not like we’re a tiny just getting started company already. But we really had to prove a lot of things before transitioning to mass manufacturing. So we had to figure out what the market wanted and really understand what farmers needed. We had to find out place in the market. So new technologies like Star Link for absolutely solving some of the problems that we initially thought we should be addressing. But yeah, now we’ve found that Zetifi has got a key role to play in extending coverage across farms. So we work with Star Link, with Telstra.  Farmers don’t just want connectivity to their house anymore. They wanted out to the sheds to be yards to the to the tractors right through all the paddocks so they can have connectivity everywhere. And that’s the mission that we’re on. So yeah, those first 1000 devices taught us everything we need to know to actually transition to building your 1000s of devices per month and getting them out there so that people have these. We see it as the new UHF basically. Every tractor every year on a farm is going to have one of our devices to have that mobile broadband everywhere you go. You want your phone to work this is gonna be the best way to do it. 

Olivia Calver (Host): So are you able to give us a bit more detail about the different products that you have and how they help each farmer on the ground?  

Dan Winson (Zetifi): Absolutely, yeah. So we’ve, we’ve narrowed down our initial launch to two products, which is the ZetiRover. It’s a device that sits on top of the tractor on top of the farm you that can be transferred between machines quite easily between the vehicle and the machine to to allow the farmer to get the most out of that capital investment. They cost a couple of thousand dollars each. So that’s not insignificant but it’s certainly within most farmers budgets to solve this big problem. That device combined is the coverage from both Telstra and Optus and provides coverage for a few 100 metres around that vehicle so that you can have Wi Fi when when you’re working in the shed or the yards or in the tractor. Now of course not all phones have enough coverage even with our cool RF technology to be able to get it to work like if you go far enough West there’s just nothing. That’s where we start working with say Starlink or NBN. Or even with Telstra if we get up high enough, we can often get onto the same 4g coverage and then we can bounce that out as long range Wi Fi across the property. So we’ve got a solution for maximising what’s there, making the most of it, and then where necessary we can fill in those gaps using our second product which is the ZetiCell cell which is a long range Wi Fi small cell service. In one way it is just Wi Fi which everyone sort of knows and loves and understands it. If you’ve got Wi Fi you’ve got data and if you’ve got data, you can make phone calls. You can browse the web, you can do video calling you can run your business. 

Olivia Calver (Host): One of the most common reasons for people getting Zetifi would be enabling them to communicate from wherever they are on the farm., Dyou you also get people who are looking for the technology specifically to enable them to adopt some agtech? 

Dan Winson (Zetifi): Yeah, absolutely. And increasingly so. So I think the reason we’ve had the success that we’ve had so far and a lot of our success in raising capital or getting that traction with farmers is because because we do two things at once we are solving that immediate urgent problem of getting your phone working, but we’re also providing the connectivity that’s needed to adopt new technology. Whether that’s making better use of the data that your tractors already collecting and getting that to your agronomist efficiently, whether it’s wanting to put in wireless cameras so that you can keep an eye on things either from a security or productivity or safety point of view. Or even if it’s the sensors and the other devices that rely on that connectivity to get the most out of it. Even software. Like obviously if you want to use AgriWebb, it’s it’s really good software and it works offline if you need to, but you can get more out of it if it’s always connected. So all of the different software providers are very happy to have us here to provide better connectivity so that their software can be always connected. 

Olivia Calver (Host): What’s been the biggest challenge you face when creating this technology and also seeing it adopted by the industry? 

Dan Winson (Zetifi): Probably the biggest challenge for us has been narrowing our focus and making sure that we’re doing one thing and doing really, really Well. When we started we were doing cameras and sensors and household connectivity, all sorts of things but we’ve really narrowed that focus down to provide connectivity across the farm to the vehicles and machinery and out to those key locations outdoors. Things like your your workshop, your shared CRMs.  

Olivia Calver (Host): And you said you got lucky with people, a lot of early adopters and farmers coming on board. But were there any challenges in getting adoption by sort of that wider industry and now that you’re planning that mass market approach as well? 

Dan Winson (Zetifi): Honestly, no, not in the agricultural sector. I was a little bit taken aback when we run some experiments you in a mining of critical communications that we we had to actually work pretty hard to get any traction there. In the agricultural industry. We had the giants of the industry immediately taking notice of this setting up pilots working with us to make things happen and yet farmers from all around Australia. I’ve been working with this from the very start because it is such an urgent problem for them. And farmers were just happy to see someone having a proper crack at solving it. 

Olivia Calver (Host): And just some practical questions for you: what’s the installation and maintenance like for Zetifi?  Do you have a support team that can be on hand to help? 

Dan Winson (Zetifi): It’s an interesting one. Initially, we thought that we could build technology that could be self installed by farmers and we made all of our devices really, really easy to self instal. And that was a good thing to do. But we then learned that farmers had farming to do and we often ended up selling equipment that ended up sitting in a shed somewhere. So we shifted and started using machinery dealers to do the instals. Again, perfectly capable of installing our equipment and machinery guys are great because they’re always installing RTK networks and they know how to run cables really Well and yeah, they’re very capable, but also they’re too busy. It’s one of the biggest challenges for machinery dealers is getting enough good techs just to keep the machinery running. So we’ve shifted again probably two years ago now to using electricians and I think we’ve found our sweet spot there. The electricians can run the cables. Every small town has one or more electricians and these guys have got all the skills needed to instal our fixed equipment. Now the vehicle stuff you just put it on there and plug it into a cigarette lighter socket. You don’t need an install for that we’ve got kits that sit on magnets, we’ve got ones that can go on the on a roof rack or on the headboard of the unit or on the robots, all of that farmers just self install, they just did not install really just sit it on there and turn it on. But the fixed equipment does involve getting up on a roof so so we’ve sort of designed it so that an electrician can do it. So you don’t need a network engineer. 

Olivia Calver (Host): And is there an idea to sort of connect farms up and to share Wi Fi between farms? 

Dan Winson (Zetifi): Absolutely. And from a technical point of view, that’s very achievable. We’re working through what it means from a legislative and a commercial lens right now. So we can already do that. But if the farmer owns the infrastructure, technically that makes them a carrier and if they share it with someone that can be some challenges there. Of course, if there’s a farmer doing that on a small scale between their neighbours, no one’s coming knocking about that. But if we as a company tried to encourage that there could be some challenges, but we think it makes sense we don’t want to sell more infrastructure than is needed. That’s why we use the rover to make the most of the Telstra in the Optus networks and then you only want to build new infrastructure where you absolutely need it. And that means if we can put it on one hill that covers two farms, great. That’s where the tech the technology works we just need to work through the legal and commercial side of 

Olivia Calver (Host): That sounds like exciting times ahead. Well, thank you so much, Dan, for joining us. 

Dan Winson (Zetifi): Thank you, Olivia. 

 AgTech FinderYou’re listening to the Ag tech find a podcast helping you make confident technology decisions. Go to AG tech finder.com to search sought and compare the latest in agricultural technology and find the right solution for your business. 

Olivia Calver (Host): We’re now going to be speaking to Andrew Watt, Sales and Marketing Manager for Hutcheon and Pearce who are of course distributors of John Deere machinery. Hutcheon and Pearce  have adopted Zetifi themselves for use on and on-farm. Andrew, is the product that Hutcheon and Pearce use most the ZetiRover to get that roaming Wi Fi? 

Andrew Watt (Hutcheon & Pearce): Yeah, definitely. And, you know, customers are also joint customers and Zetifi as well. So a lot of our large customers, some corporate customers as well, are using the Zeti bases and you know that point to point Wi Fi solutions for on-farm connectivity as well. But for us Yeah, it is a mobile solution that using the ZetiRover.  

Olivia Calver (Host): It sounds like currently Zetifi is important to the business or the ability to communicate and for your customers business as Well. But do you have some plans in the future for Zetifi to help you adopt some more ag tech, some precision ag those sorts of things? 

Andrew Watt (Hutcheon & Pearce): Yeah, for sure. So John Deere, obviously being our major supplier and partner with with Hutcheon and Pearce has pretty much got a single focus on and that is utilising technology and precision ag as well as machine connectivity to meet the growing challenges of the globe around how to feed and clothe the world using more technology and less inputs to produce more more food fibre etc. And this is a journey that we’ve been on for over a decade and that’s, you know, having those connected machines available to unlock more productivity and uptime. Deere globally, we’ve got around 500,000 machines connected to their cloud using that for a number of different reasons. And within Hutcheon and Pearce ourselves, you know that that’s close to 5000 connected machines, with the view to triple that before 2030. So that for us is is key. It’s changing the face of our conversations with customers to make sure that they get unlocking the value of that because there’s no point of having connectivity just for connectivity sake, that’s pretty much a large part of their business strategy is to use that agtech or or precision ag focus to do more with less whether that be optimising uptime machines for predictive alerts, whether it’s capturing that data and having it in danger of being used. Because in precision ag, as you’re aware, a lot of that data isn’t used because it is hard to track and keep front of mind. But for us, you know, the connectivity solution that we’ve got in the machines themselves, aren’t too bad in good network areas. But Zetifi as a solution for us, in conjunction with what’s on the machinery, is key to giving that full time connectivity without having to go back to a satellite solution. So for us, that means our modems and machines with the gateways built in from factory, they can connect to the Zeti rover Wi Fi and get that speed of connection for real time data sharing for infield sharing of lines, coverage, Maps section control, minimising those those inputs and overlaps. As well as being able to remotely access that machine. You know if you’re an operator or a an owner or someone from our Support Centre to help diagnose issues or optimise the machines as well. 

 Olivia Calver (Host): Have you found that connectivity has been one of the biggest stumbling blocks when it comes to adoption and use of that precision ag technology that’s available? 

Andrew Watt (Hutcheon & Pearce): I wouldn’t say it’s been been a limitation. I think as the technology has evolved over time, the need for greater speed has been has started to become a limiting factor. So for example, if if we were using machine to machine communication where you could have a harvester and a tractor talking to each other, the tractors operating the chaser bin and the the machines need to be able to communicate in real time where their location is so they don’t run into each other because it’s automatically controlling the tractor. The local radio connection between the two has been a bit unreliable. So moving that to the mobile network and getting those those talking in real time and at a fast pace has certainly been a challenge as as the need for that technology is increased. So the uptake and adoption of that tech has really been limited by speed. Until Until now having these types of solutions like Zetifi at our finger tips. But it’s changing also the way that our customers use our our apps and using using other app whether it’s ag Well or other other reco apps, instead of it being something back in the office where they’ve got their hard wired connection. They’re doing it around the machine and doing it around the vehicle, the pulling it out of their pocket every five minutes versus only looking at it maybe once a week back on the on the computer. So I think it’s well hasn’t necessarily limited it to a degree where it’s halted at it’s it’s made it more accessible for sure. 

Olivia Calver (Host): Has there been any challenges to adopting this technology or other connectivity solutions like it? 

Andrew Watt (Hutcheon & Pearce): I think probably the biggest one is current sectors being used. So trying to get people to accept Okay, Well maybe that mobile booster the extra aerial the existing machine or vehicle boosting setup, you know, they’ve got an investment in that. Although they may not be super happy with it or there’s a bit more of a manual intervention that needs to happen to jump between brands or get that great experience. That’s probably been our biggest one is people not wanting to have to run multiple systems. So Zetifi being great in giving us you know, trial or you know, there’s a demo unit go and try it for five minutes or a week or whatever. Magnetic base, put it on the ute and away we go. And pretty much on pretty much in every single case… our staff in particular have certainly jumped to that and said early on that as far outperforming a cell Fargo or another similar mobile boosting technology. 

Olivia Calver (Host): Do you see it being rolled out a sort of wider way than it has been so far? 

 Andrew Watt (Hutcheon & Pearce): For Hutcheon and Pearce, we’ll be rolling this out across the majority of our remote fleet, really focusing on the service technicians and our optimization team that operate in those remote areas first, and then bring that throughout the fleet as we get more availability of product and get some of these new prototype designs that we’ve been trialling with the 5g especially into those city areas because that that speeds just been amazing. You know, it’s just out in the paddock the other day. It was actually north of Carathul, west of Griffith which unless you’re standing on top of the water storage bank, you wouldn’t have got more than than half a bar of signal and we were down below in a in a tail drain watching the picker go around and talking to the customer and more vehicle was was around 150 metres away with Zetifi running. I shared the login with the customer. We’re both making phone calls through that Wi Fi calling clear as day and he couldn’t imagine it and so those sorts of examples and and real life experiences that it’s just causing this product to just spread like wildfire across our industry anyway. 

Olivia Calver (Host): Do you think that we’re going to reach a time soon where connectivity problems that thing of ‘oh, you know I’m going to be out of range for a bit now and won’t be able to connect back into you and I’m gonna go visit this farmer etc.’ Do you think that will be a thing of the past and the future? 

Andrew Watt (Hutcheon and Pearce): I think so. Certainly saying that is reducing now. We have a lot of especially our salespeople in our management that travel a lot from the north to the south and areas around 1300 kilometres so when we’re travelling between branches, often, probably 312 years ago during the start of COVID. Normally, we wouldn’t even attempt to log in and you just say I’m travelling between here and here. That’s not even worth it. And now it’ll hold through all of those areas. Even to the point where it changed change the way that we’re working. We’re not having to think about that when we’re booking in meetings or were you know, thinking that you know, we need to XYZ and people on this call it’s pretty important topic. We’re going to wait until they arrive in Weewah or somewhere. That’s just just work seamlessly. Then you add into your style links and your other technologies like that that have come into fruition. That’s becoming more widely available or more economically sustainable as well. Certainly that time when you were having to stand around or drive a hundred kilometres to get service, is just becoming a thing of the past.  

Olivia Calver (Host): A blessing but also a curse sometimes not being able to switch off. No excuse. For sure. 

Olivia Calver is a rural and agricultural journalist from the Riverina in NSW, who has worked as an ABC Rural Reporter, filing for programs including the Country Hour and Landline. Previously, Olivia wrote for The Land newspaper, travelling all over southern NSW to tell farmers’ stories. Olivia lives on a cropping and sheep family farm near Jerilderie and is passionate about keeping up to date with the latest in agricultural news and technology.