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Mobile coverage the missing lifeline in country Australia

Date

Paul Fletcher

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OPINION

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

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

 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.

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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34 comments so far

  • Really??? No really. And this man blames Labor? We're not the Liberals in charge before them? And did nothing either. A whole swath of countryside between Malmsbury, Glenlyon, Guildford and Daylesford in Victoria including several small towns, surrounded by national parks, forest and therefore bush fire territory, effectively one road in and one road out, has at best one bar, but often no reception ( the reception is so poor it often takes 5 goes to get a strong enough signal to make a call -and your lucky if it doesn't drop - god forbid in a bush fire and the landline burns out your trapped as SMS's often arrive hours later). Neither party, despite it being brought to their attention over the last several years have done anything. This applies equally to Telstra and Optus. So before the Secretary sits there smugly, maybe he needs to explain why both sides of politics did nothing until now - not just Labor.

    Commenter
    Andrew
    Location
    Glenlyon
    Date and time
    July 04, 2014, 12:24PM
    • ...and to add to my last comment. We are only 100 Klms from the nations second largest city- so this problem does not only affect remote rural areas. Pretty disgusting in hunks day and age. Maybe Tony behold stop visiting milk factories and get his house in order...

      Commenter
      Andrew
      Location
      Glenlyon
      Date and time
      July 04, 2014, 12:27PM
      • More whining from the bush. I don't see why should expect everyone else in the country to subsidise your choice of lifestyle. In any case there is satellite mobile phone coverage across 100% of Australia.

        Commenter
        Frank
        Location
        Canberra
        Date and time
        July 05, 2014, 2:36PM
      • @Frank. To be honest, if you have the hide to talk about subsidization, and your living in Canberra, come and talk to the rest of Australia mate. The entire raison de entre of that city is subsidization of your jobs and facilities by the Australian taxpayer, look around you, nearly every bit of infrastructure in that town has been generously provided by the Australian taxpayer including rural taxpayers. What/ You think a city of 200,000 could afford the high speed roads, museums etc you have on just the citizens paying for it. Oh by the way - I don't consider a location 100 klm from the second biggest city or an hour away exactly 'the bush'. If we can't get adequate mobile coverage that close to a major population centre, then really, we have failed as a nation and the reason for that is likely the people in your city up there doing nothing but shuffling paper around sitting on their hands and not holding to account the nations corporate citizens.

        Commenter
        Andrew
        Date and time
        July 17, 2014, 8:21AM
    • Did Paul Fletcher forget the issue with Telstra exchange at Warrnambool?

      Wireless/Mobile requires MORE ELECTRICITY than fixed line.
      ELECTRICITY FAULT AT Warnnambool.

      As a result of the fire, 61,856 PSTN phone lines, 14,409 ADSL services, 56 ISDN services, 40 3G mobile base stations, 138 IP metropolitan area network services, and 13 Telstra direct services were cut off.

      Yes, even 3G mobile base stations were effected.

      Commenter
      Yaarrrg
      Date and time
      July 04, 2014, 12:27PM
      • Have used both UXC had done a lot of work on TPAMS .

        I would have to say that whilst the 100 million is welcomed it's a very poor amount overall.

        You don't have to go far west in Sydney, Brisbane, north and west of Adelaide as well as western Australia to know that mobile phone coverage is almost non existent, not to mention remote rural locations.

        Victoria has the best coverage but is not perfect either, and it's more like 1-2 billion is required to fill in black holes and increase coverage dramatically. But the true story here is the three different/separate networks with three different infrastructures was the biggest crime Government allowed in the first place just to pocket fee's.

        Rather than just pouring money in, lets have a real look at how we extract better options from the three main carriers and get rid of duplication where possible, secondly that only shared towers/cells are an option so that we don't litter the environment with towers everywhere, increase Wi-Fi hot spots (free) where applicable, and ensure capacity planning and DRP are of a high priority for consumers.

        Australia had missed a golden opportunity to have had one set of infrastructure available to all carriers which would have benefited all Australians had all that investment that went into duplication of systems gone into coverage.

        It is now time for some strategic planning on this issue to get better outcome for all Australia, city and rural so that we can have a world-class outcome in communications.

        This current arrangement is just window dressing, and the problem will still exist for others in different rural locations.

        Commenter
        James
        Date and time
        July 04, 2014, 12:34PM
        • Yes.
          Why have separate towers for Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone where one tower with antennae for those companies would suffice?

          Commenter
          boyo
          Date and time
          July 04, 2014, 4:59PM
      • Paul, as a former Optus senior employee, you well know that the NBN was a GBE set up there to provide Australia with a ubiquitous Communications backbone, from which private enterprise could develop strategies and applications to utilise and make money using that backbone for various communications and data carriage packages.

        The previous Australian Communications organisation PMG/Telecom/Telstra having done fairly well until it was privatised, when as a vertically integrated Comms company abused that monopoly

        The NBNCo was NOT set up as yet another Telco as you are positing. And you KNOW that.

        You are being dishonest with your central theme behind this article. And what is worse, you know you are being dishonest.

        Commenter
        DenisPC9
        Location
        New England Region
        Date and time
        July 04, 2014, 12:38PM
        • Yes.
          How is mobile telephone coverage relevant to the NBN/Mtm?
          Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone have had years to improve their coverage, yet have done little or nothing about it.

          Commenter
          boyo
          Date and time
          July 04, 2014, 5:04PM
      • Gee, maybe when the fools sold Telstra and made it simply another profit making Telco they would have thought of issues like this?

        And what fools sold Telstra? - the same fools that this fool is a member of.

        Commenter
        DC
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        July 04, 2014, 12:48PM

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