Interview - ABC Mid North Coast with Fiona Poole

FIONA POOLE, HOST: In the budget, $400 million to expand regional mobile coverage. The internet is getting a boost as well; NBN Co getting $2.4 billion over four years to expand fibre to nearly 10 million homes and businesses by late 2025. And I was particularly interested in this Double J radio. Double J, it might become a radio station –just not on digital and on your TV. It might become on the radio band. There’s a feasibility study into that. So, here to take us through some of the detail is Michelle Rowland. She’s the Federal Minister for Communications. Michelle, good morning.


POOLE: Let’s start with the most pressing concern. When there’s fire or emergency or weather situations in our region, communications fail. We’ve seen this time and time and time again. What does the budget have for those critical moments and the resilience of our communications systems?

ROWLAND: You’re absolutely right, Fiona, and your listeners will know only too well that in natural disasters when the power goes out – or if you have infrastructure that’s damaged by flood or by fire –this can be the difference between life and death. We recognise that in this Budget. Anthony Albanese as Prime Minister is very conscious that we were elected on a platform of a better future for all and that’s irrespective of whether you live in the city, the outer suburbs or in the regions like your good self and your listeners. But exactly as you say, improving regional mobile coverage is so important, but also the term we use is hardening communications networks against natural disasters. So, the budget contains $400 million towards that, and this is vitally important for so many regional communities where, unfortunately, we’re facing so many more frequent and severe natural disasters as well. This is absolutely critical.

POOLE: How will you do that? Like, how will you build the resilience of communication systems with this $400 million? Where will that be spent? On doing what exactly?

ROWLAND: Well, part of this not only  about expanding mobile coverage, but also in terms of hardening – there’s probably two main areas. The first is the technologies that we have now do enable some resilience to be built into networks, and we’ve got telcos who are already doing this. But also this is about exploring what more can be done. I mean, there’s not much that can be achieved when the power is out or infrastructure goes down, but we’re looking at quite a broad range of solutions, you know, whether that’s through the use of drones, for example. But a lot of this technology, it’s nascent, it’s developing, but we want to use this funding to really think laterally, to work with the sector, but also to work with communities about what they need and what can best benefit them during natural disasters. This is a really strong focus on futureproofing some of these networks.

And I think an important part here too, Fiona, is expectation management. When you have some kinds of natural disasters – like, in Lismore, for example, we had a Telstra exchange that was flooded and then that exchange was under water itself by several more metres. When that happens, there’s not much more you can do at that time to improve it. We can be forward-looking. We can do this planning better. Again, when we saw, particularly what’s happened during the floods over the last couple of months, without communications it impacts everything from the ability to transact, the ability for businesses to actually serve their customers, the ability for people to communicate, and that was really noticeable.

A big focus by this Prime Minister is on doing whatever we can in terms of preparation, in terms of being forward‑looking, of futureproofing, to really alleviate some of that and make it better.

POOLE: Let’s talk about mobile coverage. I was telling the story about being on the side of the highway this morning trying to call my husband. I had one bar. But then when I came into work and sort of started presenting the program, I was having a conversation with the former mayor of the Bellingen Shire who’s a Greens councillor with Bellingen and mid conversation this happened.

FIONA POOLE: Dom? Dom, are you there?

DOMINIC KING: Sorry, can you still here me? [Technical malfunction.]

FIONA POOLE: No, we can’t hear you, Dom.

POOLE: And that’s just day‑to‑day life for people on the Coffs and Mid North Coast. Mobile reception black spots everywhere. Is there anything in the budget for that?

ROWLAND: Absolutely. So, in addition to that hardening of communications networks, we’ve got this $400 million to improve mobile coverage. We’ve also got $200 million for further rounds of what’s called the Regional Connectivity Program, and that helps to fund a broad range of place‑based communications solutions. So, whether it be expanding coverage or improving signal quality.

The other thing that we’re doing that is probably the first of its kind, we’re doing an independent audit of mobile coverage, and this is utilising transponders on Australia Post vehicles. Australia Post goes to every part of Australia. We have coverage maps that the carriers put out, and some of them are publicly available and – as I think as your listeners will know, Fiona –those coverage maps and the ways in which the signals that people actually receive don’t always correspond. So, we’re trying to get – and I think this is a really novel way of doing it – is an independent audit finding out where the true black spots are so that we can best direct funding, we can best invest to get the solutions for exactly what you described.

I think the other thing to recognise, and this came through the regional telco review that came out late last year, mobile is so important for these communities. It is not just nice-to-have –people rely on it more than ever. That came out during the pandemic but also your listeners will know how much they rely on their mobile services. So, we’ve got a very strong emphasis on mobile coverage in this budget and that includes exactly as I described for natural disasters and resilience building, doing what we can to make sure that it is improved and that it is hardened against those disasters as well.

POOLE: Michelle Rowland joins us this morning, the Federal Minister for Communications. We’re taking a look at what was in the budget last night to improve communications in the regions. Michelle, one of the other things that happens for the Coffs and Mid North Coast is that we seem to have a growing divide between the haves and have‑nots with electricity prices going up, fruit and veg going up by eight per cent, you know, just the cost of living, the cost of rents, the housing squeeze. There are more and more families that can’t just afford an additional internet bill. At the same time, school kids need it. Education now is online, and they’re just not getting the opportunities they deserve. Is there anything in the budget to assist those families?

ROWLAND: There absolutely is, Fiona, and what we identified during the pandemic --and this is where State and Territory authorities, educational institutions actually keep really good data – we found that there was some 30,000 families across Australia for whatever reason, sometimes they’re very challenged families, sometimes it is an affordability issue,– but they’re just not connected to the internet at home. And that means that you have got this inherent disadvantage, people who can’t partake in remote learning, they can’t interact online, including with government agencies. There’s an expectation of being able to interact online.

What we are doing is we are providing free internet access via the NBN for a year for these families. We’re offering this to them and we’re trying to work out who takes this up, what sort of long‑term solutions we can give to these people. Everyone’s different, Fiona. For whatever reason, they’re not connected. We want to explore why that is, but also provide that real equality of opportunity. It is so true you’re at such a disadvantage if you’re not connected. Look, it’s relatively modest in the grand scheme of things – some 30,000 households – but if we can make a difference to some of them, that will be a difference for life.

POOLE: When do you think they will be able to apply for that, for families who are listening today who are like, “I want to get on, I just can’t afford it”?

ROWLAND: Sure. We’re looking at rolling this out for the first term next year. We’re working on this with NBN Co at the moment. And I should recognise that also during the pandemic NBN Co did have a form of this. For whatever reason, the take‑up seemed to be relatively low. And I think the key message that came out of here is to make it simple for people to take this up, so we’re working very diligently on this. We’ve got community stakeholders already who’ve been consulted on this, including non‑government organisations that identify people in need. So, I think it’s going to be really instructive to find out why these people aren’t connected, how we can assist them, because I think this is just really fundamental to providing equal opportunity, particularly in the regions.

POOLE: Michelle Rowland, Federal Minister for Communications. Just, finally, I was at Bluesfest this year and I saw Anthony Albanese make this election promise, the feasibility study into Double J and whether or not it could go on to the FM or even the AM band. He’s come through on that promise in the Budget. What’s going to happen there?

ROWLAND: He certainly has, and this was an election commitment that the Prime Minister himself made in April. And the Prime Minister has had a long interest in promoting Australian talent. So, what we’ve got here is – well, the current situation is that audiences can get Double J on digital TV, the ABC website, the ABC app but you don’t get it on radio because there’s no Double J on FM radio. Most towns don’t have DAB+ radio., We’ve recieved a lot of representations about this. Expanding the reach of Double J on radio and regional areas will be explored. We’re going to do a feasibility study undertaken by the ABC to see what we can do to expand that, and again this is about helping Australian artists to get a broader audience. We’ll make an evidence‑based decision on this, but I think it’s a really important step forward and again this is the Prime Minister honouring our election commitments.

POOLE: Michelle Rowland, thanks for your time.