Regional Communications Minister Mark Coulton urges people to have their say on mobile black spot program

Regional Communications Minister Mark Coulton. Picture supplied.
Regional Communications Minister Mark Coulton. Picture supplied.

The Better Internet for Rural Regional and Remote Australia group is keen to see education and health once again given priority treatment as the future of the Mobile Black Spot telecommunications program is being reviewed.

At the same time as announcing it has $46 million available, the Australian government released a discussion paper on design options for Round 5A, and is seeking feedback.

Regional Communications Minister Mark Coulton said it would test a range of new approaches to the delivery of the program to ensure it continues to be fit-for-purpose.

The first five rounds have generated a total of more than $836 million in 1229 new base stations across the country, with more than 800 of them now on air.

This includes $560 million in co-contributions from industry, state governments and other third parties.

According to the introduction to the discussion paper, while the program has been successful, the economics of new base stations is shifting as the program moves into more commercially marginal markets.

"At the same time, operators are seeking to migrate from 3G services and deploy new types of services," it said.

"Internationally, new infrastructure sharing models are emerging that promise the delivery of competitive mobile coverage to previously uneconomic regional and remote areas.

"It is an appropriate time to seek stakeholder views on the design of the next round of the MBSP, to identify opportunities and lessons learnt, in order to ensure it continues to deliver high value outcomes to regional and remote Australia."

BIRRR co-founder Kristy Sparrow said she understood round five had been under-subscribed because of a clause that telecommunications participants had to provide both 3G and 4G technology.

"3G was getting outdated and they couldn't see the point of applying for a tower where they would soon have to turn it off," she said.

"So that's one of the changes that would need to happen - an overhaul of the program's components so telcos can get value for money.

"The program should be looking at the most cost-effective solution."

Within the discussion paper, the government proposes three specific priorities for round 5A:

  • to improve coverage in areas prone to natural disasters including bushfires;
  • to improve coverage along major regional and remote transport corridors; and
  • to trial new technology solutions in areas where low population densities have discouraged applications in previous rounds.

Ms Sparrow said the difficulty of attracting staff to small schools and areas with only satellite coverage meant BIRRR would like to see education and health needs a priority.

"Tourism is probably overlooked also, and it can generate income for an area," she said.

According to the discussion paper, it's proposed that round 5A would target transport corridors defined in the Roads of Strategic Importance initiative and National Land Transport Network, which identify significant transport corridors that deliver economic and social benefits to Australia.

"This component...will seek to provide coverage along transport corridor sections (eg: greater than 80km) or potentially an entire route.

"Priority will be given to proposals that offer near continuous coverage along a route/section, subject to value for money considerations."

Giving priority to areas with no coverage rather than duplicating or boosting existing services was also important; Ms Sparrow said local governments and/or workplaces could be brought on board for solutions where congestion was a problem.

The discussion paper also proposes a series of changes to the eligibility guidelines for the program so that it continues to deliver high-value outcomes to regional and remote Australia.

Minister Coulton said the government was committed to delivering a program that improved coverage and choice for Australians in regional and remote areas.

It has committed $380 million to the MBSP over six rounds.

The round 5 outcomes were announced in April, with 182 base stations being awarded funding, at a total cost to the Commonwealth of $36.8 million.

There is a a further $80 million committed for round 6, and Mr Coulton said there was plenty more to do.

"In order to deliver this, it is vital we receive feedback on proposed changes from a broad regional audience."

The discussion paper is open for submissions until June 19.

This story Mobile black spot priorities under review first appeared on Farm Online.