Press conference - Regional Connectivity Program Tasmania

E&OE

SENATOR JONNO DUNIAM:

It’s great to be here with Mark Coulton, the Minister for Regional Communication and Regional Health in Tasmania to announce Federal Government support for something that’s critically important to many parts of our economy here in Tasmania.

Making sure people are connected is essential to our way of life and our ability to do business, especially as we emerge from COVID. So the Regional Connectivity Program, which Mark will speak about in a moment, is a great initiative which is going to unlock the potential for people to live better lives, do more work, seek better investments and, of course, that we all can enjoy our way of life, be it from King Island through Geeveston .

Our visitors want to post their TikTok video or their Instagram post while they’re there enjoying the experience that they do.

This is a welcome announcement -- $27 million being invested in this round of this program. Six projects here in Tasmania we are talking about today.

This is good news for Tasmania, particularly as we emerge from COVID. I’ll get Mark to speak and then we’ll have questions right at the end.

MARK COULTON:

Yeah, thanks, Jonno.

Look, it’s great to be here in Tasmania with Senator Duniam to make this announcement not only for Tasmania but across the nation.

The first tranche of round 2 of the Regional Connectivity Program, 51 more projects.

And these were projects that were actually deemed to be appropriate for round 1 but the funding wasn’t there. So rather than start again we’ve funded those projects because they do fit the bill.

What we’ve seen over the last 18 months with COVID is that regional Australia is coming into its own. And one of the things that people do require if they’re going to move and live and visit regional Australia is connectivity, and what the Regional Connectivity Program does is that it recognises a broader way of delivering data and upgrading voice across the region. So that can be putting in a wireless connection into a community, a wireless connection into an area with a high level of horticulture, a wireless connection for the visitors as well as the staff that live and work there. And in Geeveston that is an upgrade of Geeveston to fibre to the premises. And we’ll be visiting a medical centre in Geeveston later today where we’ll be talking about the advantages of having that higher capacity and higher level of connectivity to be able to do what you need to could.

One of the great myths is that regional Australia is following behind the cities when it comes to technology and connectivity. It’s actually the opposite. Regional Australians are very good at inventing ways to use capacity when it becomes available, whether it’s in agriculture, whether it’s in mining, tourism, health or in industry right across the regions. So it’s important that if we’re going to grow Australia and grow the regional economy we’ve got to have that level of connectivity.

And so great to be here in Tasmania today to announce the first tranche of round 2. There’s another $60 million to come in the rest of round 2 and applications will open for that in the near future. And, you know, I’m quite excited about this because there is a lot of interest because the government is actually backing innovation and in many cases much smaller companies to invest in regional technology.

JOURNALIST:

So, sorry, I’m a little confused. We’re already in round 1 at the moment and this is another tranche of round 1?

MARK COULTON:

Yes, so the first tranche of round 1 was announced some time ago. This is announcing the first 51 projects to be funded in tranche 2 (of round 1) which was announced in the May budget.

JOURNALIST:

And the total cost is $27 million?

MARK COULTON:

$27 million in these 51 projects and then there’s another $60 million-odd to come.

JOURNALIST:

Of those 51 projects one of those projects is in Tasmania, which is the Tahune Airwalk?

MARK COULTON:

Yes.

JOURNALIST:

And in the previous round that was the medical centre in Geeveston?

MARK COULTON:

Well, it was the whole of Geeveston which is going to be fibre to the premises.

So there were five announcements in round 1. I was one at the sites yesterday, the observatory belonging to the University of Tasmania where they’re putting a fibre optic connection to connect their facility on the top of a hill west of Hobart back to the receiver here in Tasmania.

And that will help them with tracking of among other things space debris and mapping what’s actually in deep space.

So the applications and the reasons for these connections are quite varied.

JOURNALIST:

What exactly is new in this announcement today, or is it more about just confirming that certain projects [indistinct]?

MARK COULTON:

No, today I’m announcing 51 projects that haven’t been formally announced or recognised before.

So they’re tranche 2 projects.

In round 1 there were 81 projects that have been announced. Some of those are under construction. Many of those are still in the planning stages.

Because round 1 was so popular and so well subscribed, when we put additional funding in the recent budget, it just made sense to roll in these 51 projects and then we will open to applications for the rest of the funds in round 2.

JOURNALIST:

Using Tahune as an example, what will this project be in practical terms? Is it better wi-fi? Is it, you know, building a TikTok account? What is it exactly?

MARK COULTON:

There’ll be a variety of reasons. So there’s the tourist precinct and an adjoining research facility up there where there’s people based there all the time, as well as the staff at the Airwalk.

So they’ll have better data which may be delivered through wi-fi, but also the visitors coming through will be able to log on to the wi-fi and be in contact with the outside world.

JOURNALIST:

So it’s improving, it’s getting better internet connectivity?

MARK COULTON:

Yeah, a better internet connection.
And with internet now and the phones we have, internet can be used for voice as well.

JOURNALIST:

You’re the second federal minister we’ve seen in Tassie in as many days. Is an election on the cards this year? It seems to be in campaign mode almost down here?

MARK COULTON:

Yeah, look, there’s only one person knows that, and that’s the Prime Minister. But my read is no, certainly we’re not in campaign mode.

This is delivery of services. That’s our job.

I’m Regional Communications Minister and my focus is purely on improving better communication services, connectivity to the regions.

But if you wanted a clear understanding of what this means for today’s announcement, we have a representative from TasmaNet.

JOURNALIST:

What else are you up to while you’re down here? Is this your only announcement or what else is on your agenda while you’re in Tasmania?

MARK COULTON:

The core reason I came down here, is tomorrow I’m part of the national regional ministers meeting for National Cabinet.

I’ve been seconded in to deliver a paper on local government, delivering that tomorrow afternoon to the regional ministers across the country.

They’re also having a roundtable on communications.

So I’m taking part in that. And then while I’m down here it was an opportunity to make this other announcement while I was here.

JOURNALIST:

What’s your assessment of communications in Tasmania and in what ways do you hope to improve?

MARK COULTON:

I think what we’re doing is broadening out the way that communications are delivered.

We’ve delivered five rounds of the Mobile Black Spot Program.

Round 6 of the Mobile Black Spot Program is funded. But we still haven’t designed it because we need to make sure that we’re actually designing the program that’s actually appropriate for now.

Since in 2013 when we started this program, we funded 1,200 towers, but there are other ways now of delivering those voice services into those hard-to-reach areas.

There’s two things. We’ve got to fill in the black spots and then we’ve got to lift the capacity of what’s there where it’s needed.

I live in a rural part of Australia. My connection to the outside world it Sky Muster satellite.

So all my voice calls, all my Zoom meetings, you can watch Netflix, all of that comes through a satellite service.

And that’s available to all of regional Australia, but in some cases there’s a need for higher capacity.

And obviously the topography of Tasmania does present difficulties in filling every nook and cranny.

And that’s the challenge we’ve got now. That’s what we want to do with round 6 –to make sure that those people that live in those really hard-to-reach areas can get the opportunities to people elsewhere have.

JOURNALIST:

And just because this maybe [indistinct] the national network, could you maybe outline some of the other projects [indistinct]?

MARK COULTON:

What we’ve seen across the country would be a series of wifi towers delivering data to, like tourist attractions.

As I said, the University of Tasmania, where they’re using that to improve the connectivity to their sites.

In some areas it’s an upgrade of a 3G tower to a 4GX to deliver higher levels of communication into some of those smaller communities.

So where the black spot program is purely focused on voice, the Regional Connectivity Program has more flexibility about it.

It can be voice and data. It can be a partnership with the NBN, it can be Telstra, Optus, but it can be other companies like TasmaNet and in some cases even smaller start-up companies that might be putting up two or three towers in a regional area delivering data into agricultural areas where they’re monitoring soil moisture, individual monitoring of livestock now is coming in.

There’s a whole range of projects.

If you put the data up there there’s people in regional Australia who are working on ways to invent things to use it. And so that’s the challenge we have –to keep up with the need.

Because what we seen is that you can live and work and you don’t have to be in the CBD of a capital city.

We’ve got people running retail businesses. They’re working connected to city businesses but are benefitting from a rural lifestyle where they’re not stuck in traffic jams and the kids can ride a bike to school and things like that.

The Regional Australia Institute has identified around about 60,000 job vacancies in regional Australia at the moment.

And if we’re going to fill those vacancies we’ve got to make sure that we’ve got the internet capacity and the voice capacity for the people – to make them comfortable enough to make them want to move here.

ROB VERNON:

Good morning, guys, and thank you for coming this morning. I appreciate it.

My name’s Rob Vernon. I’m the CEO of TasmaNet. I’ll be very brief in what I’m going to say about this project because I’d really like you to hear from Tim and Harry from our team. But from TasmaNet’s perspective I’d like to congratulate the government on this program, designing it and now executing it.

For a private enterprise like TasmaNet, this represents and gives us certainty around making investment decisions, particularly in regional areas around the country.

There are many businesses and industries that operate in our forests, on our farms, in our rivers and in our oceans. And this grant gives us the certainty to make investment decisions to enable that connectivity.

So we’re excited to be a part of this program and we’re encouraged by what we’re hearing and seeing about future opportunities to do this.

JOURNALIST:

Are we in campaign mode? What’s going on? We’ve been busy this week [indistinct] federal jobs. Are you looking at taking back Lyons?

SENATOR JONNO DUNIAM:

Look, we’re always focused on making sure that we can continue to serve the people of Australia and that best is done by us being in government.

Part of that is to retake the seat of Lyons. We had a budget just a few weeks ago and ministers from every portfolio have been down here.

We’re following the budget. We had the Minister for Education, we had the Treasurer amongst others. This week we’ve had the Minister for Social Services. We now have Mark Coulton here.

You’ll be seeing lots of ministers coming down to remind Tasmanians, which is an important part of the commonwealth, why the Coalition is the best team for them at the next election, whenever that may be.

And it could be some time off. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

But we are focused on delivering projects like ones that have been announced today to make sure Australia continues to grow the way it should as we emerge from COVID.

JOURNALIST:

Do you feel ready for an election this year if one was held this year?

SENATOR JONNO DUNIAM:

Look, we are always focused on making sure that we’re doing the right thing by the people we represent.

Obviously whenever an election is called I am ready to get out of the box and run as hard as I can, along with all of my colleagues and candidates.

Obviously we do still have some preselections to take care of here in Tasmania in the south of the state at a federal level, but we’ll do those as and question required.

We are focused every day on making sure that we are doing what we need to. And that is represent the people of Tasmania in Canberra in their best interests.