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Mobile coverage the missing lifeline in country Australia

 A $100 million fund to improve mobile coverage will deliver results for remote and rural communities, writes Paul Fletcher.  

While the previous government spent lavishly on its planned national broadband network, it paid no attention to regional and remote mobile coverage. Not one dollar of public funding was allocated  for improved mobile services, despite repeated calls for action from country Australians.

Paul Fletcher, parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Communications, says $100 million  has been committed to ...
Paul Fletcher, parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Communications, says $100 million has been committed to improve mobile coverage in rural and remote areas. Photo: Anthony Johnson

In numerous community meetings around Australia in recent months – from Geraldton in WA to Dumbalk in the Gippsland region of Victoria, from Paterson in NSW to Clarke Creek two hours north of Rockhampton in Queensland - I have heard a clear message.

People lacking mobile coverage in their town feel profoundly disadvantaged – and it grated with them when the previous government said so much about NBN and so little about mobile. 

Safety is the first thing people mention in these meetings. Mobile coverage means a quicker response to car accidents; and greatly assists in fighting bushfires, floods and other natural disasters. 

Better mobile coverage makes it easier for volunteer firefighters to mobilise; and helps more people get bushfire warnings by SMS.  In the Grampians in Victoria, for example, I heard from people who failed to receive SMS warnings because they had no coverage.


Tourism quickly comes up in the conversation.  Guests from Australia’s big cities – or around the world – expect to have mobile connectivity wherever they stay.

An operator in Narooma, in southern NSW, told me there is no mobile coverage in his park, and one in 10 of the people who drive up choose not to stay as a result.

Increasingly, today’s tourists use their smart phones to make a booking while they are on the road towards their destination.  That is bad news for, say, a bed and breakfast operator located in a region with poor connectivity. By the time your property is visible on the smartphone of a potential guest, he or she has already driven through your region and is 20 kilometres down the road.

At Gunns Plains in Tasmania, a wildlife park is a major local attraction – but it has no mobile coverage and hence misses out on potential business. 

Tourism is just one example of the way that economic activity increasingly depends on having mobile coverage.

Mobile connectivity has a big role in agriculture: it allows the use of technology to carry out many tasks remotely, such as monitoring soil moisture, supplying water to drinking troughs for cattle and opening and closing gates.

If they have mobile coverage in the paddock, farmers can productively use their time on the tractor to do business online.

A farmer in Balranald in south-west NSW told me he wanted to be able to sell his wheat online in real time – because if he waited to the end of the day and prices had moved against him, he could lose tens of thousands of dollars.

And by improving mobile coverage we can attract more people into regional Australia.

Around our country - the south-west of Western Australia, the New South Wales north coast hinterland, the Great Ocean Road and Otway region of Victoria, or many similar areas – there is a clear pattern. 

People want to enjoy the lifestyle benefits of these areas, with their beautiful natural surroundings – but they need to be connected so they can remain economically productive.

As I have travelled around the country I have been struck by the wide range of businesses people are running in rural and remote locations: the software provider in the small NSW town of Darlington Point on the Murrumbidgee who sells to customers around the world; the construction manager who works from his hobby farm 60 kilometres outside Canberra; the English-to-Dutch translator of business documents on a 16-hectare block in western Victoria’s Wartook valley. 

The Abbott government understands the importance of mobile coverage for people in regional and remote Australia.  That is why we have committed $100 million to improved mobile coverage through rolling out new mobile base stations, to be allocated through a competitive selection process designed to leverage a significant co-contribution from the mobile network operators.

While Telstra, Optus and Vodafone invest large amounts each year in expanding their networks, ours is a very big country and inevitably there will be many locations that need coverage – but which do not meet the three operators’ normal commercial criteria.

This government funding will not solve every problem – but it will certainly help to bring coverage to many locations that otherwise could not expect to get it for many years.

That will help make these areas not just safer – but also more economically vibrant.

Paul Fletcher is parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Communications in the Abbott government.

NB: Tenders for the program will begin in the second half of 2014, with an announcement on the locations chosen for funding expected in the first half of 2015, with roll-out to begin in the second half, Mr Fletcher said. The program was announced prior to the federal election.

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