The federal government’s $100 million Mobile Black Spot Programme will leave many communities stranded with bad mobile coverage or none at all, the federal Opposition claims.
Labor’s Shadow Assistant Minister for Communications, Michelle Rowland, said that only 1,000 of the 6,000 mobile black spots nominated by residents, councillors, community leaders and State government during eight months of public consultation would be covered by the 250-300 new base stations slated to be built.
Ms Rowland said that a Department of Communication representative provided the figures at a recent Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) conference.
But the federal government has said that none of 6,000 black spot reports had been verified with telephone companies or checked against their coverage maps. The government maintains that multiple black spots could be covered by one new base station.
Telstra, Optus and Vodafone are all expected to bid in the tendering process to build or upgrade base stations around Australia in the coming weeks.
Ms Rowland, who was a senior lawyer specialising in competition and regulation in telecommunications, media and technology before she became an MP, said a close eye should be kept on the tendering process.
“It is crucial that this program is competitively neutral, does not favour a single carrier and that it achieves maximum public benefit,” Ms Rowland said.
“Mobile coverage in rural and regional areas is a significant issue. This is why all mobile carriers have significant investments in this space.”
But she said that the greatest need was where there was no incentive for the market to invest.
The government has maintained that tenders will be weighted so that telcos do not just select the most populous and profitable areas in which to build a new base station. For example, companies receive extra points in the tendering process if they can show they cover a high number of kilometres of highway or a large number of square kilometres.
Local councils, in particular, are wrestling with their role in the program. While all appreciate the importance of improving mobile coverage for their communities, many remote or rural councils fear that the matched funding the government is insisting on from local councils, state governments and industry will be difficult to deliver. Contributions can be cash or in-kind.
Ms Rowland said remote and rural councils were already struggling to make ends meet and some Northern Territory councils did not have tenure over their land, excluding this as an in-kind contribution.
“Many local councils and shires in are a perilous financial state which has been exacerbated by the Abbott Government’s $1 billion cuts to their financial assistance grants,” Ms Rowland said.
“Local government continues to be plagued by cost-shifting and revenue constraints, such in NSW which is subject to rate pegging. For country areas, the effect is even more pronounced: councils must budget for both maintenance and depreciation for local infrastructure such as roads and bridges.”
Ms Rowland has met with some rural and regional councils about their contributions to the scheme but she said they were unable to quantify their financial capacity to participate until sites were elected and costings finalised.
She said some state governments were probably in a better position to take advantage of the program. Western Australia has a specific Regional Mobile Communications Project of $80 million to address infrastructure and black spots under its Royalties for Regions scheme while Victoria will allocate $40 million to improving black spot coverage.
Teresa Corbin, CEO of the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), said the $100 million was “a drop in the ocean” compared to what was needed, but still applauded the government’s initiative.
“To a certain extent metropolitan issues have been alleviated because of the investment in the network. But as far back as I can remember, we’ve had problems in relation to coverage in regional and remote areas because telcos view them as unprofitable areas so this is why it’s important to have government incentives,” Ms Corbin said.
“Whoever is in government is going to have to allow for some kind of mobile phone coverage program in rural and regional areas. It’s a question of how to use the few dollars available. We would prioritise the areas that are the least (perceived) commercially viable for the telcos.”
Although the ACCAN is not a complaints body, Ms Corbin said many of the network’s members, such as the Country Women’s Association, the Isolated Children’s and Parents’ Group and NSW Farmers had provided feedback about poor mobile reception in their area.
ACCAN will shortly release a paper-based community kit, which will also be downloadable, to help individuals, governments and communities build a business case to persuade telcos to build a new base station in their area. This should be released before the tendering process begins.
“The reality is that the telcos are very city-based and they don’t understand what pent-up demand might be in these areas but local government and communities do,” Ms Corbin said.
“For example, the number of tourists in an area, which highways truckies are using and the demand for geo-based services from agriculture.”
The community kit will include telco contact details and examples of the business cases and models that have succeeded in the past.
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