Regional Australia Institute - Regional Rising Webinar Series

Check against delivery

I’d like to thank the Regional Australia Institute for the opportunity to talk to you today about the significance of digital connectivity for economic development in our regional communities.

The report that the RAI is launching today highlights a range of important issues that affect a community’s ability to maximize its economic potential.

The report particularly highlights the importance of digital connectivity to regional development, and it highlights the need for place-based solutions to reflect the circumstances of each community, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach driven from a central agency.

The report also highlights that the lack of access to reliable, high-speed connectivity continues to be a significant barrier to the achievement of economic development goals in regional areas.

There is no doubt that, regardless of which development path a community may decide to go down, digital connectivity will be critical to success.

The Government is very much aware of this.

And as Minister for Regional Health, Regional Communications and Local Government, and as an MP representing half of NSW, I am committed to improving connectivity across our country.

Regional Australia has had a very tough time in recent years – with drought, bushfires, floods and now the COVID pandemic.

Thankfully, the drought has broken in much of eastern Australia, and many regional centres are reporting a strong rebound in economic activity, off the back of the first decent harvest for some time.

Unfortunately, the strength of the rebound in some communities has been reduced by the impact of COVID.

However, if there is a silver lining from the pandemic, it is the fact that we have seen a shift in perceptions about how we live and work, and about what is possible through technological change.

Because of COVID, we have seen a more rapid uptake of technology, which has allowed us to increasingly work, study and access health services virtually.

COVID is breaking down the perception that you have to live in a major capital city to gain a quality education, to pursue a successful career or to access the best healthcare.

As a result, there is increasing interest in regional Australia as an attractive place to live, to bring up a family, to run a business, and to visit.

As someone who has lived my entire life in regional Australia, I want to ensure we take advantage of the opportunity this presents.

I want to ensure the technology that makes this possible is accessible to all Australians.

I want to ensure we use this technology to maximize the potential of our regions, and to ensure the ongoing sustainability of our regional communities.

Ladies and gentlemen, the report that has been released today by the Regional Australia Institute highlights the critical role that digital connectivity has to play in regional development.

So I’d like to take a few moments to outline what the Government is doing in this area, before handing over to Gavin Williams, who will go into more detail about some of the initiatives NBN Co is introducing to support regional digital connectivity.

The Morrison and McCormack Government is committed to improving digital connectivity for regional Australians, and we are delivering on that commitment.

In March last year, the Government announced the $220 million Stronger Regional Digital Connectivity Package, our comprehensive response to the recommendations of the 2018 Regional Telecommunications Review.

Each and every component of that package is being delivered.

Mobile Black Spot Program

The Stronger Regional Digital Connectivity Package included $160 million for Rounds 5 and 6 of the Mobile Black Spot Program.

The outcome of Round 5 was announced in April this year.

182 new base stations will be built under this round, with $35.5 million in Commonwealth funding.

Funding agreements for all sites have been concluded.

Work is now underway to identify locations, negotiate access and secure council approvals for the first of these sites.

This process typically takes 12-18 months to complete.

I am pleased to announce that the guidelines for Round 5A of the Mobile Black Spot Program are being released today, and applications for this round are now open.

The Government will use Round 5A to trial a range of new design options for the program, to ensure it continues to be fit for purpose for the needs of regional Australians.

The round includes a focus on three priorities:

  • Improving coverage in areas prone to natural disasters
  • Improving coverage along major transport corridors
  • Trialling new technologies that will allow us to further expand mobile coverage in regional areas into the future.

Applications for funding are open for 12 weeks from today, so I would strongly recommend that local communities identify their priority areas for improved mobile coverage, and contact the mobile carriers and infrastructure providers to make their priorities known.

The outcomes for this round will inform the design of Round 6, funding for which was committed in the 2019-20 Budget and which I expect will take place in the second half of 2021.

In the meantime, we continue to roll out base stations funded in the first four rounds of the Program.

Over 1,000 sites were funded in Rounds 1 to 4 – that’s real delivery on the ground for regional Australia

883 of these sites are now on air, with 103 switched on since the beginning of this year, including a number of base stations in bushfire-affected locations.

Regional Connectivity Program

In addition to the funding for the Mobile Black Spot Program, the Government’s Stronger Regional Digital Package included $53 million for the Regional Connectivity Program.

This program will provide grants for local projects that improve digital connectivity for regional communities across Australia.

Reflecting the level of interest in the program, the Government announced a further $30 million in the Budget on 6 October.

The increased funding for the Program will be used to deliver additional ‘place-based’ telecommunications infrastructure projects that respond to local needs and enable regional communities and businesses to leverage the benefits of improved digital connectivity.

These projects will enhance the economic and social opportunities available to areas outside the NBN fixed-line footprint, including in key sectors like agriculture, tourism, health and education.

Applications for this program closed yesterday [Tuesday 17 November] and the assessment process will now commence.

NBN Network Upgrade

As many of you would know, the initial roll-out of the NBN is now essentially complete.

Australians can now access the network either through a fixed fibre connection, through fixed wireless, or via the SkyMuster satellite.

I myself have been connecting from my home to the world through the SkyMuster satellite for much of this year.

With the completion of the initial roll-out, NBN Co is now turning its mind to expanding and improving its service offerings.

The recent announcement of $4.5 billion in additional investment by NBN Co will further boost connectivity for Australians living and doing business in regional areas.

This investment includes $3.5 billion to provide access on demand to ultra-fast broadband connectivity for people on NBN’s fixed line network.

Almost 50 per cent of the Fibre to the Node premises that will benefit directly from this investment are in regional areas.

NBN Co will also invest $700 million investment in 240 business fibre zones across Australia, with 85 of these zones to be located in regional areas. Businesses in these zones will have access to ultra-fast data speeds at CBD prices.

This initiative will be particularly attractive for companies that are considering regional centres as a base for their business.

The NBN upgrade package also includes a $50 million business fibre co-investment fund to develop future Business Fibre Zones in partnership with State and local Governments, and $300 million for NBN Co to work with all levels of government on local connectivity priorities.

These initiatives will all have a direct positive impact for regional communities.  I will now hand over to Gavin Williams from NBN Co to provide further information.

Thank you.