Interview with Mim Hook, ABC Gippsland

MIM HOOK, HOST: Let’s bring Michelle Rowland into the conversation. Good morning, Minister Rowland.


HOOK: Thanks for coming on ABC Gippsland Radio this morning. Now, let’s talk about mobile blackspots. There is – you’ve got a bit of an announcement, and there is some funding and people can apply for it right now.

ROWLAND: That’s right. On Monday, we opened the Mobile Black Spot and Regional Connectivity Programs. And this is $150 million in two streams covering mobile blackspots, but also makes space for new or improved broadband or mobile services. Both of these streams have been designed with a new set of guidelines that have been widely consulted on. And I think it’s important to emphasise for your listeners, Mim, that this is a co-contribution model. It’s not about the Federal Government actually going out and building this mobile infrastructure. It’s about partnering with the telco carriers, with local councils, with other interested stakeholders to really provide that incentive to improve coverage.

And I’m very grateful to your listeners for sending through those suggestions. I guess one of my really key points here now in this pre-application process is that I strongly encourage them to go to the Department of Communications Noticeboard, if they just search that up. They can see that there’s a number of communities that have already put in some very strong reasons for why their black spots need to be addressed. And this is the point where the Department of Communications will really try and bring together the different groups, and this is what counts in the application process. The more people who are engaged, the higher the chances of being successful in this process and getting results, which is what it’s all about.

HOOK: These kind of competitive processes, you’re talking to Gippsland, we’re an area that had the Black Summer bushfires 2019 and 2020. We’ve had floods. People are really weary for having to apply and fill in applications and apply for grants and then often not get them after all that, after all that effort and rallying as a community and applying. It can be a really exhausting and very disappointing process, and people have already been applying for so much to rebuild, sometimes ,their town after bushfires, shouldn’t it just be a given that we have good communication? Why are we applying for it?

ROWLAND: Well, I certainly appreciate the frustration. And your point is very valid. It should be a key commercial driver of mobile networks that they seek to maximise the number of people utilising their services and utilising their networks. But in these cases where you’ve got some areas that are actually quite marginal in terms of a business case, these are private sector organisations, all of these carriers. And it means that they’re looking for some sort of incentive and some sort of model to invest.

I should be fair to the carriers, they also have within their own commercial drivers, the desire to go out into communities and to really improve that coverage as well. But where it’s marginal for them we have found that giving those incentives through cooperation with councils and some Federal contribution does help.

But I certainly do appreciate, it is a frustrating process when you think mobile telephony, good communications and connectivity should be something that you need to really have to advocate for: it should be a right. I can certainly appreciate that. I would also point out that part of the application process and these guidelines as well as emphasising areas that are at risk of natural disaster. And we’ve also got some additional funding for network – what we call mobile network hardening so that, you know, unfortunately many of your listeners will be aware that when the power goes out in a natural disaster, the infrastructure will fail for mobile services, so utilising better technologies to harden that infrastructure is really important as well.

HOOK: Is this a sign that it’s not working? Look, there’s more places coming in. Welshpool, Hedley, Stradbroke, Myrtlebank, Bundalaguah, Narracan, Cassilis. So, look, is this a sign that the private system is not working or there’s not strong enough regulations on it? If the trains were all running completely out of time, the government, you would hope, would step in. And there seems to be regulations that they're meant to meet certain deadlines. Do we need stronger regulations on this private sector of communication? Because communication is really a right now and a safety issue, especially with more disasters happening, not less, for all Australians and for us here in Gippsland.

ROWLAND: You make a really good point. And for a number of years, there’s been really strong advocacy for what we call a universal service obligation that relates to connectivity, but it really is in many respects not fit-for-purpose. It’s about providing a voice telephony service primarily over a fixed-line. There is some component in there about access to broadband services, but I think what your listeners and the feedback that you’re getting here is reflecting the fact that there is so much reliance on mobile services these days.

We’re having a very close look at how universal service and that obligation needs to keep up with expectations and changes in technology. I note one of your listeners mentioned their satellite service. Many of your listeners will also be aware that there’s competing satellite services which are now on the cusp of offering handset voice telephony as well, and for some people that will suit them. So, I think we really need to take into account – we’ve started this process under this Government as well aa looking at these new technologies, how we can better improve those voice services and what better incentives we should give.

Also on this last point, some of the frustrations with the process at the moment is that it can be very cumbersome relying on site acquisition. It’s regulatory regime in that it was essentially designed for when Telstra was laying copper in the ground. So when people –

HOOK: So when is it going to be changed? Are you saying, Minister, that you will put better regulations in, stronger words, stronger regulations and hold to account the private companies that run our telecommunications?

ROWLAND: We’re in the process of doing that now in two aspects: firstly, in terms of examining that universal service obligation, but also in terms of examining the current rules that apply to rollouts, the quite cumbersome and patchwork level of development applications that apply to sites that can take a very long time to get approved and sometimes require local government approval. Sometimes they’re subject to heritage requirements. These are in train at the moment.

The complexity here is that it involves State and local government levels, but that should not be a barrier. I have reached out to all the States and Territories in this respect and said that we really need a better coordinated system that actually does deliver and really enables people to be able to access that connectivity, irrespective of where they live or work. And, again, recognising how critical mobile services are, especially in regional areas and especially in areas that are prone to natural disasters.

HOOK: Cabbage Tree Creek has been added to the list, and just thank you for all your messages. In Noojee it’s really bad, in Loch Valley Road. This message says,” I’m a teacher. I wish there was no mobile service around schools." There you go; there’s another task for you, Minister Rowland. Just get some – get the current black spots and move them to all of our schools, please, just to add to the complexity of your job.

Look, on satellites, realistically, look, we’ve just spent millions and millions on submarines. Should we be having less submarines and more satellites? Is that an option? Just totally relooking at the way we – our communication towers don’t seem to be working well enough. There’s not enough of them and then when we have high peak tourist times reception goes down because there’s too many people. Can we get some satellites in the sky, Minister?

ROWLAND: Part of that satellite service is, of course, important and under the National Broadband Network there is around 10 per cent or so of Australia that is served by a mix of fixed wireless and satellite services. And we’ve been really conscious that that particularly impacts on regional Australia. We’ve invested nearly half a billion dollars for upgrades to the fixed wireless network, which should benefit a lot of your listeners. But also, in turn improving the Sky Muster satellite service, and that includes a trial of enabling better download speeds and other capacity constraints that were there, taking those off. So, they should be felt in due course by your listeners as well.

But I would stress, too, that there are competing satellite services. And, again, this is an area where a lot of your listeners might be choosing to use alternative providers. And, you know, that competition is something that obviously needs to be taken into account. People will choose the technologies that are best for them. And we’re taking all of these measures into consideration as we think how do we think communications will look in the long term and what sort of regulatory regime do we need to set up.

HOOK: Okay, let’s just get through the next couple of questions quite quickly, because we’re running out of time. Megan asks, “Considering we are all so reliant on this technology, it’s just a given of now, what emergency arrangement planning is in place for when there are emergencies?” And, look, during the Black Summer bushfires there were whole communities who had just very limited ways of getting in touch with the outside world. It might be a truck radio, it might be a small little snippet of internet they can quickly message someone. What can be done? What contingency plans are in place when there is an emergency?

ROWLAND: I think there’s two things there. Firstly, in terms of network hardening, enabling the power to be on longer, so that can often mean better generators, in some cases utilising technologies that enabling those generators to be filled quicker. Of course, one of the key issues is getting fuel into those generators. But also making sure that they are located in places that are more resistant. In some instances, of course, you have a natural disaster it just takes out everything, it takes out the power. You will have a flood, for example, it will take out a whole exchange. But there are things that can be done to mitigate that, and that’s why we’re exploring those and enabling co-investment on those.

And the other one, of course, is unfortunately when you do have some of these natural disasters that just take the power out altogether the reliance there is on the broadcaster, and the ABC as the public broadcaster serves a very important role, as do community radio, as does commercial radio as well. So unfortunately I believe –

HOOK: Keep some batteries and a radio somewhere.

ROWLAND: Batteries and a transistor, and we know that that is life-saving as well.

HOOK: Thank you very much for your time, Minister. We’d love to speak again one day; I’ve got so many questions about Australia Post and other things that we haven’t had time to speak about, but we do appreciate your time today. And you’ve got a lot on your plate.

ROWLAND: I look forward to it. Thank you very much.

HOOK: All right, cheers. Michelle Rowland, Minister for Communications federally here in Australia.