Interview with David Dowsett, ABC Wide Bay

DAVID DOWSETT: So communications in our region are set to get a very nice boost indeed with NBN fibre upgrade. But of course, we've also got mobile black spots. And what about the future of Australia Post for regional and rural areas? Let's get some answers to those questions and more with Federal Communications Minister Michelle Rowland. Michelle Rowland, good morning.


DOWSETT: Michelle, communications in our region are set to get a boost?

ROWLAND: Well, that's right. And I opened on Monday the new round of the Mobile Black Spot and Regional Connectivity proposals. This is $150 million to provide grant funding for infrastructure providers for improving mobile coverage in rural, regional, and remote locations. But also, our Regional Connectivity stream is about place-based or improved broadband services and mobile services at eligible locations across Australia. And these are open until the end of May. I strongly encourage your listeners, if they're interested, to go to the Department of Communications Notice Board.

We're in the pre-application phase, where the carriers, local councils, communities, including small businesses, can have their say about areas that need improvements. The Department has a transparent set of guidelines, and it counts very much that we have communities who have demonstrated they want to be in partnership and get improvements for their local areas in relation to the NBN, which also will substantially benefit people right across Wide Bay. We've got just over some 40,000 families and small businesses who are going to be eligible for those full-fibre upgrades, including right around Bundaberg and Maryborough as well. We know that access to the best quality connectivity is so essential, irrespective of where you live or work, and in particular in rural and regional Australia, where we do have those inherent challenges. I'm sure it will be very welcomed by local residents and small businesses that they'll be able to access these full-fibre upgrades for the NBN as well.

DOWSETT: What are the benefits of full-fibre?

ROWLAND: I think they're probably summarised as threefold. Firstly, in terms of speed, secondly, reliability, as opposed to copper networks, which are subject to degradation, but also the elements, particularly when it rains and water gets into pits, but also in terms of what we call better latency and overall better quality of that experience. And transacting so much online now, the expectation that school, work and eCommerce, and even dealing with governments will be done by digital means. It's really important to match that with the highest quality communication services, including broadband.

DOWSETT: How many in our region will actually receive that upgrade?

ROWLAND: There's just over 40,000 families and small businesses who are going to be eligible for that upgrade and I would encourage anyone who is interested to register at the NBN Co website and keep their eye out for those updates.

DOWSETT: So, the suburbs that were chosen for those upgrades, how were they chosen?

ROWLAND: They're chosen by NBN Co based on engineering and part of the design of the network overall. They're selected by NBN Co and we've got some one million out of 1.5 million premises that's been announced already. We'll be announcing those remaining premises in due course when NBN Co has done that initial work. But certainly, it'll be, I'm sure, very welcomed right across Australia, where those full-fibre upgrades will be available.

DOWSETT: So, for people to find out if they are one of the chosen, how do they do that?

ROWLAND: They can go to the NBN Co website, and they can check that out there, and they can also register for updates about the rollout schedule and how that's progressing.

DOWSETT: And there are plans to expand that full-fibre rollout.

ROWLAND: Certainly, we've got an additional half a million premises under our $2.4 billion investment in this area to be announced. And again, this will ensure that these areas that have been relegated to a copper connection, will be able to get that fibre upgrade if they choose.

DOWSETT: On another issue, there are concerns about the future of Australia Post. How do you see its future?

ROWLAND: Well, we've put out a consultation paper in response, I think, to two key issues. Firstly, that Australia Post is a cherished institution. It's over 200 years old and it is important that we keep this institution going. It's important that it remains financially viable as a government business enterprise.

But secondly, since it is facing these challenges, one of our key principles is recognising how well and how important it is servicing rural and regional Australia. In some cases, Australia Post is not just the post office, it's also the bank, it's the general store as well. So, ensuring that viability and that we have a responsiveness to the changing needs of Australians. We know that letters have been in decline, that parcel services and eCommerce has been on the increase, but Australia Post faces quite a considerable amount of challenges from competition in that parcel segment.

In order to continue doing its good work, we need to examine its regulatory framework. That's why we've got this consultation paper out at the moment. Again, I would encourage any of your listeners, you can go to the Department, search up the Department of Communications, have your say and put in a submission. We've had hundreds of submissions. It doesn't have to be long, but we are genuinely interested in hearing from Australians about what they want to see in a modern postal service. And the Government will be taking on board all of the feedback that it receives as part of our consideration of Australia Post. But I want to make two things very clear. Our consultation paper, upfront, states that Australia Post and its components will remain in public hands. It won't be privatised. Secondly, we recognise the really important role that it plays in those rural and regional communities and the need to continue servicing people of those areas.

DOWSETT: So, for those that have big concerns in rural and regional areas, what will be your message to them when it comes to the potential of having the services reduced?

ROWLAND: Well, please have your say because again, your listeners will be well aware that whilst the letters volumes have declined, Australia Post still provides a really vital service. And we really see an Australia Post that has also made this clear in its own statements. We really see it having an important future in rural and regional Australia, especially for supporting those smaller micro businesses that do rely on our postal service.

DOWSETT: And just finally, ABC staff were planning industrial action this morning. Members of the CPSU stopped work, but the MEAA cancelled strike action for its members at the last minute. There's been some like nine months, I think, of negotiating a new employment agreement. What's your view of the action?

ROWLAND: Well, again, I would just point out the ABC operates as an independent entity. It does have editorial independence. Its workplace relations are part of that independence. So, I'd be very reluctant to make a specific comment on that. But I know that it is taking its course and it's something that I am following closely. But obviously the ABC as our public broadcaster serves a vital part of our community, including throughout rural and regional Australia. And we have demonstrated our commitments and filling those in relation to ensuring restoration of funding for the ABC, but also keeping it strong in rural and regional Australia.

DOWSETT: Because there have been a lot of issues around fair wages and tough budgetary conditions. Can you give a commitment about the future of ABC funding?

ROWLAND: Well, we have made a very clear election commitment about restoring the funding that was cut in the last round of the indexation pause, which we did in the October Budget. We've also committed to reviewing the sustainability and ensuring five-year funding of the ABC and that takes it beyond the political cycle as well. We will be fulfilling our election commitments in this regard. We take the public broadcaster and its role very seriously. In terms of those internal matters, they are matters for the ABC itself.

DOWSETT: Michelle Rowland. Thanks very much.

ROWLAND: Pleasure.