Interview with Debra Pearce, ABC Mildura Swan Hill

DEBRA PEARCE, HOST: Now, you all know the drill, that missed call or an important text message that you didn't get until it was too late because you've passed through a mobile black spot. And some of you might live in the very middle of one, for others, it might just be something that happens when you're on a trip out of town. In an era where mobile connectivity is everything, from all your banking to the way that emergency services let you know about dangers in the area, can we afford to still have black spots? Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland is with us, good morning.


PEARCE: You recently announced 54 target locations across remote and rural Australia as part of a $40m Improving Mobile Coverage Round of the Mobile Black Spot Program. I understand none of these target locations are in the Mallee, though, is that correct?

ROWLAND: Well, to be clear, these were election commitments that Labor, then in opposition, took to the election and funded. It's actually quite separate from the mobile funding round that we have recently concluded consultation on and will be opening very soon. I do encourage all of your listeners who are interested in the upcoming funding round, which will be open in a few weeks, to really follow what's happening on the project notice board. I can give some of the details for that as well. The key thing here is for people to be ready for applications when that funding round opens in late March, and it's really important for people to get in touch and let us know what sort of areas are of concern so we can best target that funding for where it's needed.

PEARCE: When you're looking at those funding applications, what kind of things inform your decisions? We had a situation in the West Wimmera, New Year's Eve, 2021-22, where a poor mobile tower meant that people affected by a fire couldn't get through to emergency services. So, do stories like that have an impact on the department's priorities for new towers and infrastructure?

ROWLAND: Absolutely, and we had consultation on these guidelines because that's exactly the kind of feedback that we want to hear. It's areas that are susceptible to natural disasters, where there might be, for example, existing towers, but they need what we call ‘hardening’. It might need some extra backup, because, as we know, if the power goes out, then the tower goes out. But the other bit of feedback that we've had is about making sure that irrespective of what network people might be on, they'll still be able to get access to that connectivity. And this is called multi-MNO solutions, or mobile network operator solutions and active sharing. That means people, irrespective of what network they might be connected to, can still get that access. We know that under previous rounds, that multicarrier ability only covered around 8 per cent. We really want to see that go up because this is about equality, it's about getting into areas that are particularly susceptible to natural disasters and to improving that coverage overall.

PEARCE: What about differing levels of digital literacy in the same areas that are likely to have large black spots, if people need to be able to find out how to apply or nominate for it?

ROWLAND: Absolutely. They can go to the department website, so just look that up on their search engine. There's a project notice board for what's called round three of the Regional Connectivity Program. And the really important point I want to stress to your listeners here is this is about helping communities form partnerships with the telco operators, with local councils, to get their project proposals ready for when this application opens. So, I do encourage people to go to that because once this round opens, I think there is going to be great demand because, let's face it, mobile accessibility isn't a nice to have. It's essential in this day and age.

PEARCE: Absolutely. Now, you do have an announcement on NBN that you can share with us this morning.

ROWLAND: Well, that's right. We were very pleased in the last couple of days to be able to announce that we have some one million premises across Australia that will be able to access full fibre for the NBN. Around areas like Swan Hill, Mildura, Horsham, this is around 17,000 premises, so they'll be able to upgrade to fibre access. Again, we know how important broadband is, it's not a nice to have, we're all expected to have connectivity now for everything from ecommerce to study to small businesses. Reliability, the better speeds and that quality, are really important. So, I think that this will make a really measurable difference to the quality of life of your listeners in those areas.

PEARCE: Do we know yet more specifically, where in those areas those upgrades will be? We've got Nichols Point, for example. It's only ten kilometres from the Mildura CBD. It's a very affluent suburb, but they still rely on satellite Internet.

ROWLAND: Well, certainly in some of those areas where NBN is available through the satellite, we have upgraded fixed wireless, which also goes to improving the satellite technologies, and we'll have more to say about that in the near future. But I do encourage your listeners again to visit the NBN website, they can register for updates, contact their retailer, and I think many people in these areas will welcome the better broadband that will be available under this.

PEARCE: Is your aim still for everyone in Australia to get fibre to the premises?

ROWLAND: It's always been the case that fibre would be the predominant technology, and we know that under the previous government there was a backflip from copper to fibre. We want to expand that fibre access. Australia, of course, has a very unique topography, which means that we do rely in some aspects on the fixed wireless and on the satellite networks for those areas where it's simply impossible from a technical perspective to roll out fibre. So, fibre has always been the aim of being the dominant technology for the NBN, but we certainly want to improve those other aspects of satellite and also fixed wireless technology. Our $480 million investment in improving the fixed wireless service will have some of those measurable impacts for your users.

PEARCE: It is twelve to nine. We've got the Minister for Communications, Michelle Rowland, with us. Minister, what's your final message to people in the Malley who are frustrated by mobile black spots?

ROWLAND: We recognise that this is a significant issue and that's why in our first budget we committed some $2.2 billion to improving regional connectivity and under our upgrades for the NBN, there's some 660,000 premises right across regional Australia that are going to benefit. But I think people should really be encouraged to be part of these programs, to get your voices heard, to get together and find out what sort of needs there are in the community, register for those updates and get ready to apply for these funding rounds. Because we know that it's only with that cooperation and community feedback that we're going to make a measurable difference to improving people's lives.

PEARCE: Minister we'll keep an eye on that. Thank you for your time this morning.

ROWLAND: My pleasure.