Op-Ed: Delivering Better Mobile Coverage into the Future

Since the dawn of time Australians have battled with the peril of distance. This vast, dry continent, which is among the least densely-populated countries on the planet, has long posed immense challenges when it comes to keeping connected.

When Nationals returned to government in 2013, we carried with us a burning desire to improve the scant state of mobile phone reception in large parts of regional Australia. From that desire came arguably the Government’s most successful infrastructure programme, bringing Telcos and State governments to the table, tackling the coverage shortfall.

Since its inception in 2015, five rounds of the Mobile Black Spot Programme have delivered funding for 1,229 new mobile base stations, with more than 800 of these already operational – delivering benefits to emergency service operators, agricultural businesses, and regional and remote communities across Australia.

Earlier this week I announced 182 successful base stations to be delivered under Round 5. For the first time under the programme, Field Solutions Group received funding for two base stations. Previously, only the three Mobile Network Operators (Telstra, Optus and Vodafone) had been successful.  It is promising to see other providers rising to the challenge.

After five rounds of delivery though, the challenge is evolving. While numerous black spots remain, many of the more profitable are already being delivered and the economics of each new tower is becoming more difficult for Telcos; even with extensive government support. Technology too is shifting and what was the norm when this programme began will almost certainly cease to be in years to come. The imperative to invest taxpayer funds with this in mind is obvious and we must look thoroughly at the multitude of solutions being implemented in the many corners of the globe.

We need to ensure this programme remains fit-for-purpose so it can continue to deliver for regional Australians. That’s why, in conjunction with Round 5, I’ve announced the launch of a public discussion paper process and further round “5A” to utilise unspent funds.

I want to see the Government’s investments build communities attractive to future generations as a place to stay or return to, and better mobile phone coverage and digital connectivity are a huge part of that.

Mark Coulton is Regional Communications Minister and Federal Member for Parkes. Contributions to the Mobile Black Spots discussion paper can be made at: www.communications.gov.au/mbsp