Interview with Nick Rheinberger, ABC Illawarra

NICK RHEINBERGER, HOST:  In the meantime, the good news is that the Albanese Government are planning on spending quite a bit of money to try and fix black spots, particularly along major roads. The Minister, Michelle Rowland, is going to be in the Shoalhaven today to announce more of this and joins us now at ABC Illawarra. Minister Rowland, g’day. 


RHEINBERGER: How are we going to address this? Where’s the money going to be going to? 

ROWLAND: Well, we’ll be consulting with communities but also, we’ve received a lot of feedback already from people who have been reporting black spots. It’s particularly an issue with coverage along highways and roads and in those underserved regional communities. 

What we’re also announcing today as part of a $400 million package is to have additional telecommunications resilience. This is about making sure that existing infrastructure is fit for purpose, especially during natural disasters. We know that even if you do have a base station, for example, if it is taken out by a natural disaster, then that is equally as bad as not having coverage at all. 

What we are aiming to do here is have some flexibility between some co-investment for new infrastructure but also improving the infrastructure that we have. 

RHEINBERGER: We’ve had a few votes already. Albion Park for one as well as Lake Conjola, the entry road. Look, I know when the bushfires came through places like Conjola, it had nothing at all – no data, no mobile, no nothing as soon as the power goes out. So are we going to see better resilience in terms of keeping power to those mobile phone towers in those situations? 

ROWLAND: That’s exactly what we’re aiming for. There are a couple of solutions that can be deployed depending on the particular site. They include, for example, longer battery backup for those mobile sites -what we call “redundancies”. So, a mobile tower needs to have a transmission link. If that link goes down, then it’s useless. But having a backup one could often be the answer. Extra generators could help as well. But we’re very interested in identifying those particular sites that go to that specific issue of public safety because we know how much we rely on our mobiles, but in times of natural disasters it can be the difference between life and death. 

RHEINBERGER: Yeah. Okay, look, I’ve got a couple of callers here. I’m just going to take a couple of comments, Minister, just while you’re on the line there so you can hear. Christine, first of all. G’day, Christine. 


RHEINBERGER: Yeah, where’s your black spot? 

CHRISTINE: Orient Point. 

RHEINBERGER: Orient Point. Okay. 


RHEINBERGER: Sort of a particular spot or the whole place, or what do you reckon? 

CHRISTINE: The closer to the water. There’s Jerrinja Aboriginal Reserve there and there is absolutely no reception there no matter what telco you’re with. And even contacting Telstra and asking them to come out and put new fibre optics or anything in even for a landline for a lot of the elderly there they can get free home phones so they can get calls through to people in emergencies, or even to get alarm systems for back-to-back. You can’t do anything. They say it’s going to cost $3,000 per household to come out and replace the wiring because it needs to be done. And we have to pay for it ourselves because of it being private land. But – yeah. 

RHEINBERGER: Okay. Understand. All right. Well, appropriately your mobile phone signal is terrible, Christine, but I think it’s appropriate that I talk to you. Thanks a lot. 

And just quickly I’ll go to Scott, who’s in Nowra. Hello, Scott. 

SCOTT, CALLER: Yeah, hi, Nick. Hi, Minister. Yes, just complaining about the black spots you find around Kiama Bends and also the Princes Highway, new sections just near Gerroa there. As soon as you start going up to hill that’s the end of it. You might as well just finish your conversation and try and pick it up again about another kilometre down the road. 

RHEINBERGER: Righto, thank you, Scott. 

SCOTT: Thanks very much. Thank you. 

RHEINBERGER: Right, okay, back to Minister Michelle Rowland here. Is this the kind of thing you’ve been hearing? We’ve got Albion Park, Lake Conjola, Orient Point, Kiama Bends, Gerroa, Robertson to Albion Park, Calderwood. I mean, this is all – these are not out-of-the-way places, except possibly for Orient Point. What do you – you know, how soon can we address this? 

ROWLAND: It’s a long list. Our department is working on this now to commence the consultation with the community. But that is very useful to know. I think all of your listeners who probably also agree it’s understandable that sometimes, depending on technical circumstances, you can have dropouts. But when it’s that systemic problem, that’s a particular concern. What Christine highlighted there where, you’ve got particularly vulnerable communities, and that is a particular concern as well. 

I think your listeners will also be aware that sometimes it depends on what carrier you are with as to whether or not you get coverage in particular areas. That’s why, with the program we’ve got going forward, we’re looking at what’s called a multiple – multi-carrier model.

There are different ways that that can be done. It can be done through infrastructure sharing or sharing the radio communications spectrum. But without getting too technical, it means that irrespective of what carrier you’re with, you’re still able to get coverage. 

So we’re exploring that. We think that’s a really important part of this investment that we’re making. 

RHEINBERGER: A few more votes coming in. The text line is going crazy. The middle of Woonona has terrible reception. This is right in the middle of Wollongong. “At my house in Wingello,” says Karen, “reception is terrible and seems to have gotten worse in the last few years”.

But the one I want to talk to you about, I’ve got a couple of texts, on the train line. Now, we know in other areas of the world, and I’ve experienced this myself, you know, San Francisco through to San Jose, for instance, Wi-Fi on the trains is a minimum. So many people use that commute to work so they don’t perhaps have to spend so much time at the office. And the train line between Wollongong and Sydney is just shocking when it comes to reception. Is there any view to getting better reception along the line for commuters? 

ROWLAND: Well, I think what you’re highlighting there is two points: firstly, the way that we work, the way that we interact and conduct our e-commerce has changed so much - not just since the pandemic but over the last couple of years. Your listeners probably won’t be amazed to know that you’re actually able to quantify the benefits of mobile technology. By next year it’s expected to have a $65 billion uplift in the economy. But it’s useless, of course, if it’s not working. And people do work on their commute. 

So I think that’s the first point – to acknowledge how important mobile has become. The second I think is the importance of different levels of government working together. I think that there is an expectation that you will have Wi-Fi and on some transport links around Sydney and metro areas there’s Wi-Fi. But why should regional and other rural areas be any different is a really important consideration. 

I’m very happy to take that up as well because I think this goes to the productivity of commuters and also, as you say, telco and access to data is rapidly becoming a basic human right. 

RHEINBERGER: Okay. Now, in the long past, the Labor government promised fibre to the premises and certain places such as Kiama were lucky enough to get that as part of a pilot rollout. There is a commitment to improve NBN fibre upgrades for regional premises. Where and when are we talking about? 

ROWLAND: There certainly is that commitment. In fact, that was funded as part of the Budget papers as well. What this is, is a $2.4 billion to upgrade fibre access to an additional one and a half million premises around Australia. The good news is that around 660,000 of those premises will be in the regions. We are currently working with NBN on its rollout schedule. But we anticipate that by the end of 2025 we’re going to have some 90 per cent of the fixed line NBN footprint able to access those gigabit speeds. 

That work is currently underway. The decisions about deployment are made on primarily an engineering basis, but I will have more to say as that work is undertaken and we have specific suburbs and times available. 

I should also just point out your listeners there is also a continual program of fibre upgrades that’s been going on for a few years, and those suburbs are gradually being rolled out now. I look forward to being in the region more in future to allowance when your listeners are able to access those upgrades, and I certainly encourage them, if they like, to make that choice and to get that upgrade. 

RHEINBERGER: All right, Minister Michelle Rowland, very good to talk to you. Thanks very much. 

ROWLAND: My pleasure. Have a great day.