Interview with Jeremy Jones, ABC Midwest & Wheatbelt Breakfast

JEREMY JONES, HOST: You’ve probably had a look at the Budget yesterday when it came out at 4:30 WA time, and included in it as well is the Better Connectivity Plan for Regional and Rural Australia. And Michelle Rowland MP, the Minister for Communications, joins me now. Good morning Michelle.


JONES: Michelle, what’s in this Budget for regional Australia?

ROWLAND: We’ve made probably the most significant investment in regional communications since the establishment of the National Broadband Network over a decade ago. And that’s because we recognise this Government was elected on a platform of providing a better future for everyone irrespective of where you live – either cities or the outer suburbs or the regions. And increasing connectivity means bridging that digital divide, including improving mobile coverage and protecting communities against natural disasters. It’s absolutely fundamental. It’s going to make a substantial difference to the quality of life, particularly for residents in our regions.

And we are doing this through a multitude of ways, including $400 million towards our mobile black spot program and also our communications resilience program. We’ve got $200 million for further rounds of the Regional Connectivity Program, and we are also undertaking a $20 million audit of mobile coverage to get a proper evidence base to guide and set a target to priorities.

This is fundamental because the way in which our work habits, our schooling habits and also the way that we transact has certainly changed since the pandemic. But this has been an ongoing challenge in regional areas, and we’re determined to make a difference, improve quality of life, and productivity and the quality of business for everyone in our regions, including yours.

JONES: In the region people will be eager to know about the Mobile Black Spot Program. That has a big impact here in the region. People just having trouble, you know, important phone calls they can’t make out on the road because there just isn’t any reception. What is the goal of the program, and when do you think people will start seeing results?

ROWLAND: Well, we are commencing work on this straight away. And I think the difference that people will notice, sometimes depending on your carrier is that you can have different levels of connectivity or dropouts. But there are two things that are well understood: firstly, the reliance on mobiles has never been greater, and that is particularly so for people in our regions. And what we are doing is expanding this program so that we boost multi-carrier mobile coverage, and that’s on regional roads, and also improving courage in underserved rural and remote communities.

So, we are undertaking this expeditiously. It will have a strong evidence base. And the department will be targeting in particular those areas where dropouts are occurring. People rely on their mobile services they they’re travelling long distances in regional areas. That’s why we have this particular focus on regional roads as well.

JONES: Absolutely. And the audit as well, what do you think you’ll find from that, and will this lead to more policy announcements in the future?

ROWLAND: Sure. And I mean the carriers publish coverage maps already, but I’m sure many of your listeners know there can often be quite a discrepancy between what is published and what actually is capable of being received. What we’re doing here, we’re doing something quite smart – we’re leveraging off Australia Post. Australia Post goes to every part of Australia. They have thousands of vehicles, and we are utilising transponders and other measuring devices on those vehicles to go around Australia and do this national audit. It will be independent, and also one of the key things is getting that evidence base so that we make decisions truly on the basis of need.

JONES: And having a look at the Budget as well, what about support for regional and local news?

ROWLAND: We’ve already delivered on our regional newspaper program. And that is having measurable results in the regions. But, also you understand how important it is to have coverage for our public broadcasters, including the ABC, which also serves as the emergency broadcaster. We’re committing $84 million here as part of our election promise to reinstate that funding that was cut. But I think that people will notice right across the portfolio –in terms of news but also, you know, in terms of the National Broadband Network where we have a $2.4 billion commitment to provide full fibre access to 1.5 million additional premises.

And, Jeremy, the pleasing thing here for the regions is that there’s some 660,000 premises in the regions that will benefit from that. And, of course, the National Broadband Network cuts across all areas of our lives – the way that we do business, but also entertainment and the delivery of news services as well. So that will be a real positive for the regions, including yours.

JONES: Absolutely. I’m intrigued with regional news as well, something I’ve seen is how much people rely on sort of reading local papers in their towns as well. And it’s something that we’ve seen sort of dying out here a little bit or sort of across Australia is the local paper, the local rag. I was wondering, is this that you see as an issue, and what could support this in the future?

ROWLAND: It certainly is an issue. And, you know, our Regional and Local Newspaper Publishers Program where we have $15 million going to over 200 newspaper publishers right across the country really went to the immediate issue of cash flow. These newspapers, you know, particularly coming out of COVID, were in a dire situation. But we do need to have a longer-term plan, and I think that people still rely on their local papers because they value two things: they value localism and they value diversity. Those two inputs are so vital, especially for our regions. And look at who relies on them – you’ve got small businesses, and community groups. It’s also about just being able to connect in that localised way is so important.

I’ll be having more to say, Jeremy, in coming weeks about our broader media reform strategy. Within that we’ve got issues such as, you know, reforms to the anti-siphoning list, because we believe that it doesn’t matter where you live or how much you earn, you should be able to watch iconic sporting events of national significance. We’re also looking at issues around something called prominence, which is around smart TVs and being able to find Australian content on those smart TVs. That’s vitally important as well.

But I’ll have more to say about that in the coming months. Your listeners can rest assured that we’re very alive to these issues. We’re very conscious of the fact that the regions rely on connectivity in all its forms, be it mobile services, the stable, ubiquitous platform of free-to-air television, be it their local papers. This Government wants to ensure that Australians irrespective of where they live are connected, they’re informed, and they’re empowered. And that’s what this budget delivers.

JONES: Michelle, thank you very much for your time.

ROWLAND: Absolute pleasure. Have a great day.