Interview with Senator Helen Polley, Launceston, Tasmania

SUBJECTS: Albanese Government’s commitment to audit of mobile coverage

HELEN POLLEY, SENATOR FOR TASMANIA: Good morning, everyone. I’d like to welcome Michelle Rowland, our Minister for Communications. It’s a delight to have you back in Tasmania. What we’re talking about today is this commitment from the Federal Government –nd we know in Tasmania probably better than most places – how important funding is for the black spots program. In Grindelwald and West Tamar in particular, they’re going to be funded through this Budget, which is fantastic news.

We knew during the pandemic how important communications was to people being isolated at home. So it’s a great delight today to have Michelle with us. A great delight because she’s a fantastic Minister and she’s a very good friend of Tasmania.

MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Thank you so much, Senator Polley. And it is great to be here in Launceston and to be here about delivering on our very important election commitment that we have in relation to mobile services here in Tasmania.

What we are doing is delivering on a very important commitment to conduct an independent mobile audit. And this will be a national audit which will be leveraging off another very strong component of the Communications portfolio –Australia Post. The Australia Post fleet covers nearly 90 per cent of Australia. And what we are going to be doing with this election commitment delivery is utilising tracking devices and other transponders, smart technology, on those Australia Post vehicles to measure mobile signals right around Australia.

What this will mean is we will have a very important input to understanding the nature of mobile coverage, where those black spots are, and this will inform good future investments in the sector. Ultimately the beneficiaries here will be consumers because consumers know that the predictive coverage maps which are issued by the carriers are not always accurate on the ground. They also know the importance of mobile connectivity has never been more prevalent. This was particularly heightened during the pandemic, but for regional areas like parts of Tasmania it is important all the time.

So I’m very pleased to announce delivery of this component of our election package. It is a $20 million investment that will go a long way towards improving mobile coverage throughout Tasmania and throughout Australia.

JOURNALIST: This style of data collection using Australia Post for this purpose - has this been done before or is this a new idea?

ROWLAND: This is novel. But we see this as an important way to get value for money, leveraging off a national asset in that Australia Post fleet. And we also are aware that in the United States, a similar national independent study is being undertaken. But this one in Australia is quite unique, and I think it also reflects this Government’s priorities to make sure that we deliver efficiently and effectively on our investments.

Combined with the $400 million that we have committed in this Budget towards mobile black spots and resilience, and when you add up the collective amount so far from Federal, State and private sector contributions, this will total now around one billion dollars in investments in this vitally important area. So, we see this as a critical input to ensuring we get the best value for money out of that.

And I should also make it clear that whilst this audit is being undertaken, we will still be proceeding with our black spots commitments and our black spots program. But it will be a really important input to ensuring we get the biggest bang for the taxpayer buck in what is a really critical form of communications infrastructure.

JOURNALIST: What areas of Tassie have you already identified as needing better coverage?

ROWLAND: Well, we know that northern Tasmania has particular sites. We know that there were 60 sites committed right around Tasmania under the last black spots program, and 40 of those have been delivered so far. But part of this process, too, is to be consultative with the community about the potential for new sites that need to be upgraded or might need new base stations.

So that’s one of the reasons why I’m here in Tasmania to listen to small businesses, listen to residents and to understand where their priorities are.

JOURNALIST: Minister, will this technology be on the whole of Australia Post fleet or are you pretty much targeting areas where you think there are black spots?

ROWLAND: We are working through that at the moment with the Department on the design of the scheme. But we will be undertaking this. It will be ready to go at the beginning of next year. But certainly the objective in all this is to ensure that we provide the best mobile services we can and that we have the best infrastructure outputs and also the best and most secure investments.

JOURNALIST: You say you’re conducting an audit. Is that just purely about the state of coverage in the country, or will you also be auditing the rollout of previous towers and seeing whether or not they’re actually put in the right place?

ROWLAND: It will combine both elements to some degree. But what this is about is examining what coverage is there. And in some cases the coverage may be present but it might be intermittent or unreliable. So it's not only the total amount of coverage but also the quality of coverage as well. And what we have announced in our Budget is not only funding for mobile black spots but also improvements in those black spots.

I should also point out that we have a specific stream that deals with resilience funding. These are for areas that might be susceptible to natural disasters, and we know that unfortunately these are becoming more frequent and more severe.

I would also like to point out that in times of rain and bad weather this is also the time when a lot of Members and Senators will receive complaints about the National Broadband Network where it is still being operated on copper lines. And that’s one of the reasons why we have also committed $2.4 billion to enable full fibre access for up to 1.5 million new premises around Australia. And most importantly, that includes over 660,000 premises in the regions. So this should be a major boon for those areas of Tasmania who still need to have those upgrades. And we are continually getting feedback and working with NBN Co on those.

But by and large, both this mobile announcement that we are making and also our commitments in the broadband space will have measurable benefits for consumers and small businesses alike.

JOURNALIST: Do you know roughly how long it will take to do this audit?

ROWLAND: We’re going through the scoping at the moment. We anticipate that we’ll have this up and running at the beginning of next year. We’ll have certain milestones along the way. But we intend also to be transparent with the public about what we are finding in that audit, where we might need to put extra resources, for example, if we identify specific areas that are in need. But the Department is already working on this and that’s only days after the Federal Budget was released and the funding was committed.

JOURNALIST: When will be the first milestone, and how much data do you need before you reach that?

ROWLAND: That’s being worked on at the moment by the Department. But certainly, we will need to conduct this in a way that best reflects the needs of the community, best reflects the needs of small businesses. So certainly we’ll be reaching out with draft terms of reference and also a competitive tender process to ensure that we get the best value for money and we also get the best outputs.

JOURNALIST: The amount of deliveries in urban areas is going to be a lot greater than regional and rural areas. So by partnering with Australia Post, are you really going to be able to get an accurate data set given there’ll be so many more people in areas with good reception getting post?

ROWLAND: It will be a large data set and, yes, Australia Post does cover around 90 per cent of Australia with its fleet. But one of the things the Department is also looking at is what other existing information can be supplemented. We know that the carriers, as I said, have their own data now. There are other organisations that carry their own data sets. But this will be the first time that we will be leveraging off Australia Post and using that information as an input.

That can only be a good thing. When you have larger sources of information from a variety of sources you are actually able to build up a fuller picture of where that mobile coverage is. So I certainly think this is a worthwhile investment for what is a big taxpayer commitment, but certainly a very worthwhile taxpayer commitment.

JOURNALIST: How much money will Australia Post get for participating this?

ROWLAND: The Department is working through that with Australia Post at the moment.

JOURNALIST: Is there any suspicion that some of the coverage infrastructure that’s been rolled out under the black spot program was put in place for political reasons rather than for the communities that were most deserving?

ROWLAND: I’ll let the Department look at that as they design their scheme. But ultimately the most important thing here is consumers, to ensure that consumers and small businesses have the best mobile coverage. And what I’m announcing today is part of a really positive commitment that goes precisely to that goal.

JOURNALIST: So mobile coverage, and internet as well? Is that being measured or is that not part of it?

ROWLAND: They’re measuring signals, and, of course, those signals for mobile coverage cover voice as well as data. So the Department at the moment is designing that scheme in order that we get the best possible data collection from that tracking service.

JOURNALIST: And at this point do we know how many devices will be in the field and on trucks or is that –

ROWLAND: We don’t have a precise number, but certainly the Australia Post fleet is in the thousands right around Australia. So we anticipate that this will provide that critical mass in order to give the best measurements and to– best inform us on where those mobile coverage black spots are.

JOURNALIST: Will every truck be used?

ROWLAND: The Department is working on that at the moment.

JOURNALIST: Thanks, Minister.

ROWLAND: Thank you so much.