Interview with Belinda King, ABC Northern Tasmania, Launceston

BELINDA KING, HOST: We all know how patchy mobile reception can be right around the state. So, I think it’s fair to say that it’s quite pleasing to hear that a new nationwide initiative is being launched today by the Federal Government to help better locate reception black spots. And as part of the plan, mobile signal measurement devices will be placed on Australia Post vans and trucks so they can actually record mobile reception data as they move around.

To talk us through the plan we’re joined this morning by Federal Communications Minister Michelle Rowland. Michelle Rowland, thank you very much for joining us.

MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Good morning, great to be here, Belinda.

KING: You’re launching this new project in northern Tasmania this morning. So, does this mean that this truly is an area that is particularly heavily affected by poor mobile reception?

ROWLAND: Well, we know, Belinda, that good mobile service is not a nice to have anymore – it’s simply essential, as with all forms of communication. And that was born out by the pandemic, but also your listeners will know very well their reliance on mobile services.

What we are doing with this $20 million investment is - for the first time - we are doing a national audit of mobile coverage around Australia. And we’re doing it in what I think is a unique and smart way; leveraging off existing government assets – so that’s Australia Post vehicles. That fleet goes to nearly every part of Australia, using tracking devices to measure those signals, and it’s going to do two things: it’s going to better inform the kinds of investment decisions that are made in future but also give consumers a bit more transparency about the coverage of different carriers.

KING: Do you think mobile phone providers have been spruiking better coverage reception than they actually provide?

ROWLAND: Look, it’s been one of the selling points since competition was introduced many years ago, Belinda. But your listeners will well-know that sometimes those maps don’t always match the coverage that’s received. So, I think that this will be a really useful exercise in that transparency and helping consumers make more informed decisions.

But also, that sort of accuracy, being able to supplement that data, and that being the first time it’s been done, I think that that will be a really positive investment for what has been a really large outlay in government investment but also private sector investment as well.

KING: Mobile phone technology certainly has surged ahead in recent years. But phone reception is still an enormous problem. Is this just explained by Australia’s vast distances and remoteness of some regions, or should we be doing better as a country?

ROWLAND: It’s partly both. Tasmanians will well-know that they live in such a beautiful state – there’s so much natural habitat – the topography impacts upon the ability of signals as well. But technology is improving all the time. And I think that the investment incentives that governments need to give – at a state and federal level – need to encourage the carriers to go where people are and to ensure that their needs are being met.

We know that it’s just part of the laws of physics – as you have more people utilising a tower and the cells on that tower, the greater the degradation of that quality of service. So, we need to always keep improving as well as erecting new base stations.

KING: It is, I have to say, good to hear that this audit is taking place. And black spots will be located, identified by this project. But when is the actual problem of mobile reception itself going to be fixed? Is there a timeline that is going to be imposed here?

ROWLAND: I think there’s probably two things there Belinda. The first is of course these towers are rolled out by private companies, so the carriers role these out. But government does have a role in identifying areas of consumer need and providing those incentives to drive that investment as well. And that’s not only a commonwealth responsibility – the states have come on board with some of that as well.

I think your listeners will appreciate that, you know, not all mobile coverage is going to be guaranteed a hundred per cent of the time. But there is an expectation of good service where there are populations and where there are also, for example, areas of natural disasters or areas where there are large tourism populations. You can see some of the projects that have been invested in - in the past - have reflected that. You have areas where people go as tourists and they expect – and rightly so – to be able to download files, to upload. And when you can’t do that, it’s very frustrating for them, but it’s also very frustrating for tourism operators. I know Tasmania’s reliance on tourism, for example, is a big draw card for such a beautiful state.

So, I think that this is about improving what we’ve got but also identifying areas where greater focus needs to be made, because exactly as your listeners know, the reliance on mobiles has never been greater, and it’s only going to continue.

KING: 17 minutes past 7. We’re just having a chat this morning with Federal Communications Minister Michelle Rowland. So, Michelle Rowland, in the meantime what can people in those regional and remote areas do when they’re hit by mobile reception problem also? What are some of the solutions that are currently available?

ROWLAND: The first is to report it to your carrier because unless they know about it – and often you’ll have carriers receiving large numbers of complaints from their customers and that’s how they identify that there’s a fault; there might be a fault, for example, at the tower or it needs to be upgraded. As a local member of Parliament myself, I can identify where there are large numbers of complaints that point to an issue with mobile coverage. So, I think one of the first things is to report it.

But the second thing is there are some – and we’re also investing in what’s called a Regional Tech Hub which has already been established. It’s run by an operator by the National Farmers Federation, and this is one example of an independent source that provides advice on different technologies that can be utilised as well. So that includes different technologies that, for example, if you’re on a large property, it’s able to make the signal stronger.

But I do think, Belinda, the first port of call should be report it. I’d also encourage your listeners to engage in this process that we have going forward. We have committed more substantial funding towards mobile black spots in last week’s budget, and we’re very keen to seek community engagement in areas of need. Your listeners can give feedback through the Department of Communications website, for example. But it’s important to let us know, because that way we can involve consumers in that process, and that’s what it’s all about – making it better for consumers.

KING: 19 minutes past 7. Minister, what else are you up to while you’re here in northern Tassie. What else is on the radar as part of your trip?

ROWLAND: Sure. Well, most of this is a listen and learn trip. This is my first visit to Tasmania as Minister for Communications, and it’s a great privilege. But I want to assure your listeners the focus of this government, we were elected on a platform of a better future for all. And that includes people living the regions, living in Tasmania, irrespective of your means. But we want to make sure everyone has the opportunity to be connected, to be informed and to be empowered.

So, it’s doing this announcement today but also doing a lot of listening about how we can better utilise the portfolio for the betterment of all. I myself fully appreciate the value of ICT and the way in which it drives productivity in small businesses. So really looking forward to getting out and about in Launceston today.

KING: We’ve received a little text message here from Rodney in Tasmania. And he’s talking about a black spot that is out Liffey way. And it’s been an ongoing issue for many, many years. He’s very, very keen to see it fixed. And I guess he’s raising a few doubts here that it will actually be resolved finally.

ROWLAND: Well – I’m glad I’ve written this down. I will take that on board, I can assure Rodney and your listeners.

KING: Thank you very much. Federal Communications Minister Michelle Rowland, welcome to the state and thanks for your time this morning.

ROWLAND: Thank you so much. Have a great day.