Rural residents and holidaymakers visiting Australian regional towns and remote areas can now help the government identify which areas need better mobile coverage.
The government has not yet decided which locations should be target by a $100 million program announced during the election, or which mobile companies should get the contract, but it has promised to spend $80 million over four years expanding existing coverage "along major transport routes, in small communities and in areas that are prone to experiencing natural disasters". It will spend a further $20 million towards boosting coverage in holiday towns and locations "with unique coverage problems".
The parliamentary secretary to the minister for Communications, Paul Fletcher, plans to visit regional areas in coming months to discuss mobile coverage and has asked for help from the public in identifying areas with poor or no mobile coverage.
Some network operators have found it commercially feasible to upgrade holiday towns, with Telstra recently announcing an expansion of 4G coverage to popular tourist sites.
The $100 million program comes as the government prepares to wind down a $2 million per year satellite phone subsidy program for people living and working in the 75 per cent of Australia's land mass without any mobile coverage at all.
The subsidy program started in 2002 when satellite phones were prohibitively expensive and has been extended multiple times. Last year 4923 Australians used the subsidy, receiving an average of $515 and costing the government $2.6 million. However, with the cost of satellite handsets decreasing in recent years – although call costs remain high - the Labor government announced last year the subsidy would end on June 30, 2014. The new government has confirmed it would keep the end date.
President of the National Farmers Federation, Brent Finlay, said satellite phones helped productivity and work safety in remote areas that would never get any mobile coverage. "We would be disappointed [if the subsidy ended] and we are negotiating with the government to extend it," he said.
Meanwhile, the government has asked the mobile industry for advice on the best way to co-fund the proposed mobile network expansions. It outlined three potential funding methods in a discussion paper released shortly before Christmas: a 'winner takes all' approach giving the full amount to a single network operator to subsidise its own network expansion; or allowing a single operator or group of operators to bid for building and operating individual base stations, or groups of base stations; and offering the money to a single company to build a physical network and lease space to all mobile operators, or operate a wholesale network providing access on commercial terms.
All the options would see base stations operating for at least ten years and any new infrastructure made available to other mobile networks on commercial terms reflecting the government subsidy. Previous government plans have not insisted on open access, which gave the winning bidder an infrastructure monopoly.
The government also plans to make available to mobile operators the towers installed by NBN Co as part of its wireless broadband rollout in regional Australia, and access to underground fibre backhaul.
A spokeswoman for Vodafone said previous mobile network subsidy programs had "simply resulted in significant taxpayer monies going to Telstra, further entrenching its monopoly in many parts of regional Australia".
"There's no doubt the decisions made by previous state and federal governments that provided subsidies for Telstra to expand its network have hurt competition."
This latest round of funding comes on top of $145 million the federal government has spent helping the private sector expand mobile coverage into regional areas over the past 13 years, according to the 2011-12 Regional Telecommunications Review.
"In the committee's view, the mobile telecommunications coverage footprint is approaching the limits of commercial viability in rural and remote Australia. In the absence of incentives for carriers to increase the coverage footprint, there is unlikely to be any significant network expansion," the committee's final report noted.
"Without intervention in the market, the majority of people and businesses that do not currently have mobile coverage will remain without coverage."
The committee found existing mobile networks cover about 25 per cent of Australia's landmass, but most of the urbanised population.
It also recommended keeping the satellite phone subsidy program for people who live and work outside these urban areas.