Transcript - ABC Western Plains interview

NIC HEALEY:

Mobile black spot areas. We know they are the absolute pits when you're caught in one, they can be the bane of your existence, big problem when you're travelling.

The next stage of the Federal Government's mobile black spot program is being announced today. Roads are going to be the focus. Mark Coulton is Minister for Regional Communications. Minister, thanks for waiting patiently.

MARK COULTON:

Good morning, Nic, how are you?

NIC HEALEY:

I'm very well, thank you. This is stage 5A if I'm correct and it's going to be looking at coverage in major transport corridors.

MARK COULTON:

Yes, certainly will. So in the previous five rounds we've funded about 1,200 towers but we've got to a point where that model has not really ‑ cannot go much further and so round 5A is a bit of an innovative model and we're looking at three different sections. \We're looking at transport corridors, making sure that we've got coverage along them.

We're also looking at disaster prone areas, whether they're bushfire areas or, you know, flood areas or, you know, in North Queensland maybe cyclone areas, putting in more resilience there.

But the one that I'm ‑ the part that I'm excited about is we're looking at the more innovative models of delivering mobile coverage into areas that are harder to fit.

There's still about 100,000 Australians that don't have mobile coverage and we're not going to get everyone, obviously, but we need to do better than we are at the moment. I'm looking forward to some partnerships coming up, whether it's between local councils and telecommunications companies or, you know, individuals to partner up with telecommunications companies to come up with a model that, you know, we're maybe not familiar with but could be the answer to the future.

NIC HEALEY:

Minister, coming into the ‑ I believe there's only one stage after this. This feels like a late stage to be looking at disaster prone areas now.

MARK COULTON:

Actually a few months ago, Nic, we actually allocated a similar amount just to bushfire areas. We put $37 million into a resilience program that we're funding battery upgrade for, you know, at least 12 hours of battery back‑up because quite often with the bushfires it's the electricity network that gets burnt out rather than the telecommunications tower.

We're also funding mobile technology. Because, you know, if you look at a map of Australia you can't really predict where the bushfires are going to be so we've funded what we call cells on wheels or mobile exchanges on wheels, and also NBN satellite trucks or utes so that, you know, if an area gets burnt out we can quickly go in there with a mobile technology and, you know, people will have access to WiFi, they can call their loved ones, maybe make the, you know, the call to their insurance company. We're certainly looking at a multi‑pronged approach.

We're also putting a couple of thousand NBN satellite dishes on RFS centres but also emergency evacuation centres as well. We're well aware of the issues around bushfires, but this one will be broader than just bushfire areas. It'll be eligible for anyone across the country.

NIC HEALEY:

Minister, you mentioned the 1,200 mobile base stations. I do know there have been base station delays and I'm assuming they were related to COVID‑19 right around the world. Are we back on track with those?

MARK COULTON:

Yeah, look, it's a bit frustrating sometimes. The delays can be for a number of reasons.

Sometimes it's hard to believe, I know, for country folk but sometimes others, there's local resistance to having a tower.

Everyone wants to have phone service but not everyone wants to have a tower on their property. So sometimes it's finding the right site.

I know there's two towers coming for near where we are, at Dunedoo, so there's two towers, one to go up at Leadville and one to go at Uarbry to cover that area that was really decimated by fire.

I've been frustrated with the length of time it's taken to get that up but we are nearly there with them but there is quite a bit of a process to go through.

NIC HEALEY:

What's the time frame for this round, round 5A?

MARK COULTON:

So it opens today. I'm officially launching it about midday and it will be opened for 12 weeks, so that takes us through to February, and I would expect that by the time all the projects are assessed we're probably looking at April/May next year we'll know which one's successful.

NIC HEALEY:

And I know round 6 kicks off straight afterwards. There's a further $80 million that's been earmarked for that. What will round 6 involve?

MARK COULTON:

There's another program we've got, Nic, called the Regional Connectivity Program that's just closed on 17 November. It's also funding innovative approaches to delivering technology into regional areas.

So what comes out of the Regional Connectivity Program and the round we're just announcing today, what comes out of the that as the shining light will be what ‑ round 6 is funded but not designed and so we are well aware that we need to be looking to the future on this and so round 6 will be an innovative round, the whole $82 million, but as to how it looks we'll wait and see how we go with the round that we're funding at the moment.

NIC HEALEY:

Well given this question might be how long is a piece of string, but when are you hoping to have a pin put into the entire black spot program, have it all wrapped up?

MARK COULTON:

Look, to be honest I don't think with the current technology we've got not every Australian is going to have a mobile service. I mean you can in your house.

I mean my mobile phone calls when I'm at home at Warialda are through the satellite, through WiFi calling. So, you know, everyone in Australia can have a phone that works in their house but that's not the same as a mobile phone connection.

But we've got about 100,000 now that don't and we need to make that a much lesser number, but obviously people are very remote, you know, in the outback or living in very sparsely populated mountainous regions, there's probably not going to be a phone tower for every valley.

There's other technology coming, Nic. We've got low orbiting satellites, stationary balloons. There's a whole range of work going on that we might even see some of the trials coming up, you know, in the next year or so and who knows, in 30 years' time a phone tower might be just something to put Christmas lights on.

You know, we might have another form of technology that's delivering the service. But we're not there yet.

NIC HEALEY:

No, Minister, we'll leave it there. Thank you very much. Mark Coulton is the Minister for Regional Communications. We are rapidly coming up to 8 o'clock news.

Ends.