Interview with Rikki Lambert, Flow FM

RIKKI LAMBERT: The day after the big Federal Budget speech we’re checking in on the communications portfolio with Minister Michelle Rowland. Minister, what’s your big take away from last night’s Budget?

MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Well, this is a Budget that recognises that this government was elected on a platform of a better future for all, and that’s irrespective of whether you live in our cities or our outer suburbs or our regions. So, in the communications portfolio we have delivered on that commitment. We’ve got one of the most significant regional telco investment packages since the establishment of the National Broadband Network, and we’ve got $2.2 billion in regional telco over the next five years, which is a major increase in regional comms funding. And that’s because we recognise that these investments are an investment in people, in productivity and also in the equity that we so desperately need right across this country.

LAMBERT: Is the pointy end of a lot of that about fixing black spots? Or is it also just about reliability of just mobile phone coverage before we get to internet coverage in regional towns?

ROWLAND: It’s the whole suite. We’ve got a significant package to improve regional mobile coverage, but also to harden communications networks against natural disasters. We’ve got further rounds of the Regional Connectivity Program, which is a fund about a broad range of place-based comms solutions. And really significantly we’ve got $30 million to expand on-farm connectivity. I’m sure a lot of your listeners who are producing food and fibre recognise the importance of digitisation on their farms. So this is utilising that technology and really driving productivity through machine-to-machine networks. And I think that’s a really exciting development we have in this budget.

And we’ve got an expansion of the Regional Tech Hubs. This provides expert advice to regional customers about how to connect and stay connected. So it is a very considered package in the communications sector. But we've also got, of course, a $2.4 billion investment in expanding fibre access to the National Broadband Network. That will see 1.5 million additional premises able to access gigabit speeds by late 2025. And very pleasingly, Rikki, some 660,000 of those premises are going to be in the regions, which is so important.

LAMBERT: Yeah, the one about mobile phone coverage for farmers was the number one issue they raised with us during the Federal election campaign.– on that subject of towns that are going to be connected - 660,000 in regional areas – are you able to indicate yet where those connections might improve State by State, for instance?

ROWLAND: Well, certainly your listeners will know better than anyone where those black spots are. And now that we have that commitment in the Budget, we will have our department looking at competitive rounds of getting this rolled out. But I do encourage all your listeners to participate in that. We want to ensure that people who need this connectivity actually end up receiving it. So you can stay tuned for that. But certainly, if you’ve got a black spot in an area let us know.

LAMBERT: Now, when you talk about funding that’s been provided in the budget in this portfolio – I haven’t looked in others yet – but it talks about a five-year funding program. The forward estimates are only three. Are some of those in the outyears, some of the funding that’s been committed?

ROWLAND: Some of it is in the outyears. But what I think is important here is that this is a really significant package of very conscious decision to look at what we need in regional Australia. And your listeners will know better than anyone how the environment has changed, especially since the pandemic with people’s work habits, their study habits, the way they transact has all changed. We’ve taken a very very forward-looking approach to this. This isn’t just about fixing up short-term issues; this is about a long-term plan to ensure we’ve got connectivity exactly where we need it in regional Australia.

LAMBERT: All right. One of the smaller funded items we’ve noticed is half a million dollars for a feasibility study to expand Double J into FM frequencies. Comments attributed to the Arts Minister Tony Burke suggest this will be into regional areas. Is there a problem with what FM stations are providing in regions at the moment?

ROWLAND: Well, Double J was established for a specific purpose, and we undertook some consultations and received feedback during the campaign that this would be a good thing for regional consumers. It would also be a good thing for Australian artists. So, we’ve got the department looking at the feasibility of expanding that to FM as well. So, this is a bespoke program just for that, and look forward to seeing the results and hopefully they are positive and we can get some traction there.

LAMBERT: But the FM space is a pretty hotly contested commercial space in the sense that frequency, there's not a lot of it up for grabs. Wouldn't this occupy a space commercial operators want to be part of?

ROWLAND: You’re exactly right – it is hotly contested. Spectrum by its very nature is a finite resource. It’s used but not consumed. It’s very valuable. So that’s why we are undertaking an evidence-based feasibility study for Double J to assess whether that is worthwhile and what the benefits will be. So, it will be a very transparent but also a very evidence-based process.

LAMBERT: Well, Minister, thank you very much for joining us this morning, the day after the Federal Budget. Appreciate you filling us in on what’s on offer for our regional listeners.

ROWLAND: Absolute pleasure. And I look forward to being about it, including in your good part of the world.