Press conference, Nowra

FIONA PHILLIPS, MEMBER FOR GILMORE: Hi everyone. Fiona Phillips, the Federal Member for Gilmore and I'm delighted to be here in South Nowra today, with Michelle Rowland, the Minister for Communications, Jenny Aitchison, the NSW Shadow Minister for Regional Transport and Roads, of course, Rob Pirc from the TWU, and local truck driver, Pat. 

Of course, we know how important our regional roads are and we know how important regional connectivity is. As someone, along with my community, that lived through the bushfires and so many natural disasters, we know how important it is to have good mobile coverage and good NBN coverage.  It's just so important. So whether you're a truck driver or a local family, we need to have that access up and down the highway. In the Budget, I was thrilled to see funding for fireproof power poles from the highway going south, and coverage improvements in many of our local communities, particularly around Jamberoo, around Kangaroo Valley around Worrigee and Lilli Pilli in the southern part of the electorate.  I'm really pleased Michelle is here. I've been banging the drum about how important regional communications is, particularly in times of disasters and building resilience. So, I’m thrilled to have Michelle and everyone here today.

MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Good morning. Last week's Budget included delivery on a very important commitment of the Albanese Labor Government. And that is a $656 million package for better connectivity for regional and rural Australia. I've been going around regional Australia just in the last week, explaining to people the benefits of many of its components. They include a $20 million independent audit of mobile coverage, which will utilise the Australia Post fleet. It also includes a $30 million package for On Farm Connectivity improvements for our food and fibre producers to make the most of ICT, and it also includes an additional $6 million towards the Regional Tech Hub which we know has assisted so many consumers and producers in regional Australia. 

Today, I'm very pleased to confirm that within this package is a $400 million funding commitment to improve mobile coverage on regional highways, roads and underserved communities. It also includes funding for improving the resilience of those mobile networks. As Fiona and so many residents here know, you can have the best mobile infrastructure but in times of natural disaster, you need to ensure that it actually is capable of working. In many cases when the power goes out, unfortunately, this takes out the communication services as well. We are very keen to ensure that those parts of infrastructure are fit for purpose. That could include, for example, enhanced power backup, redundancy in the case of transmission links, but also improved generators. This is so important particularly for productivity benefits, as we know that some $65 billion in productivity will be generated by next year through having great mobile services. 

We know from the pandemic experience as well, that mobile coverage is not only a nice-to-have, it's absolutely essential. It is particularly essential for those great workers who are operating trucks and other transport logistics services, and those people in our supply chains who are keeping our economy moving. But most importantly, it is crucial in times of natural disasters, where mobile coverage can mean the difference between life and death.

I'm very pleased to be announcing this component of the package today here in Gilmore with our fabulous local member who has been one of the greatest advocates for improved mobile coverage for her entire community. This, of course, comes on top of our announcement included in the Budget papers of $2.4 billion to fibre-up an additional 1.5 million premises around Australia with the National Broadband Network. Most importantly, in that package, this includes some 660,000 premises that will be capable of accessing fibre in the regions. It also comes on top of our $480 million funding package to improve the fixed wireless network of the National Broadband Network, which in turn improves the satellite coverage. So this week, as I've been going around regional Australia, I'm very much reminded of the importance of ensuring that every Australian, irrespective of where you live or work has exactly the same opportunities through enhanced connectivity to improve their quality of life, their productivity, and their wellbeing overall.

JENNY AITCHISON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR REGIONAL TRANSPORT AND ROADS: Thanks, Michelle. Thanks, Fiona. It's great to be here. I've been on the South Coast for nearly a week now meeting with local communities right from Eden up to here in Nowra. One of the really big themes of that has been connectivity, not just the roads and the transport network, but also the capacity of the internet and mobile coverage. And what the Minister has said is really right. You know, that safety aspect of not having good internet coverage, not good mobile coverage is really holding back our regional communities just as much as the potholes on the roads and the poor transport. This is something that in every round table that we've held, people have raised it as a major issue. I really welcome this announcement, not just here for Gilmore, which is really important, but right across our regional communities, because in New South Wales, we're really falling behind because of that.

PAT ARMSTRONG, TRUCK DRIVER: Mobile phone coverage is so vital for the transport industry, mainly truck drivers because usually they're often the first responders for a truck accident. In general, they need to have that coverage for their customers and for their employer. It's just a vital part of transport workers to be able to communicate over the phone while working. Thank you.

JOURNALIST: Couple questions for Michelle, please. Tell me a bit about the areas on the South Coast and far South Coast this includes and which kind of roads? 

ROWLAND: Sure. We made some announcements during the campaign about improving mobile coverage on the Princes Highway. But as Fiona will tell you, part of this relies on the community giving feedback. The Department at the moment is conducting the parameters of this grant scheme. It will include two things in particular that I'd like to emphasise. It will be a focus on multi carrier coverage. We know currently, under the Mobile Black Spot Scheme, there is only quite a small percentage of those parts of infrastructure that have more than one carrier being able to be supplied. We want to ensure that it doesn't matter what carrier you're with, you've got enhanced connectivity to that base station. But the other thing that's also really important in terms of taking on that consultation is ensuring that we have not only good existing coverage, but we can really bolster coverage to cover those natural disasters. So, it's new coverage, as well as enhancing some of those base stations that are already there. I'm sure, Fiona, you could speak to some of the areas in particular that really do require that enhanced connectivity.

PHILLIPS: There are so many black spots across Gilmore. I was up in Bawley Point yesterday and a resident came up to me, just talking about how much it impacted the business that they were visiting. Look everywhere I go, there are so many mobile black spots. I think when you look at the Princes Highway, particularly during the bushfires, we had thousands and thousands of people stranded by the side of their cars blocked and in some cases with no communications with their loved ones. So there are many mobile black spots.

JOURNALIST: And tell me about the need for good coverage. Does it save lives? 

PHILLIPS: Oh, absolutely. The number one thing that people told me, after the Black Summer bushfires was we need good power and we need good communications. If you have good communications, you can keep in touch with your family members. And importantly, our emergency services volunteers can actually do what they need to do. So, it's about protecting entire communities. 

JOURNALIST: Why did it take so long to get this kind of mobile coverage improvement in Gilmore? 

PHILLIPS: Look, I have absolutely been advocating for this for years.  I'm really pleased with this announcement and obviously the announcements during the Budget. You know, there's some fundamental things there like fireproof power poles going through a major transmission station. That feedback has gone back to Michelle as the Minister and also to the Minister for Emergency Services. This is something that we should be doing more of, particularly for those one-road-in-one-road-out communities that rely so much on those power and communications. 

JOURNALIST: Obviously, this is an incredible thing for Gilmore, but what else needs to be done? 

PHILLIPS: Look, I think there's always more we can do. And today, I'm ecstatic about this announcement. If we can help improve our power and our communications, and have that knowledge that people can keep in contact with their loved ones. I mean, that's one of the best things we can do, that we can have that communication to keep people safe or get them out if they need to. It's absolutely paramount. 

JOURNALIST: So with the new facilities that are going to be built in your infrastructure sector to cater for 5G, [inaudible]?

ROWLAND: We will be consulting on all of those. But certainly 5G is being rolled out to many parts of Australia now. Some of those commercial rollouts are complete, but we'll be consulting on the types of technology that will be utilised.  The Department will have guidelines, and we will have consultation on that and more to say as that progresses.

JOURNALIST: Are there further black spots that are not yet been done, but next on the list?

PHILLIPS: Look as I was saying there's so many black spots. Where do you start? I think that's the problem. Michelle was on the radio this morning, and the phones were going hot with people calling in with black spots. I think part of this announcement is about obviously, identifying those black spots more clearly and starting to address them.

JOURNALIST: Michelle, obviously, we've heard about Black Summer bushfires was an insanely emotional time. Tell me a bit about is this plan. Is it fireproof for the crews and the families, if we had to have a second event, are they going to be in the same situation?

ROWLAND: I think we need to appreciate that the technology has come a long way. But even as the various inquiries into the bushfires, and also the Regional Telco Inquiry released late last year shows, you can do a lot with resilience. It is never completely failsafe for every single facility. But things can be done better.  One of the main things identified there was the issue of power. Because when the power goes out, that's when communications goes down. Different types of natural disasters have different impacts. Floods have a different impact to fire. But certainly there is much we can learn from those experiences and from those inquiries, and that's one of the reasons why we do have this focus on resilience. 

Unfortunately, we know that natural disasters are becoming more frequent and more intense. And the number one priority of government is to keep Australians safe. So that is why we are making this announcement with a very deliberate focus on improving resilience and existing engineering infrastructure. 

JOURNALIST: Obviously, it's a multi-million dollar investment. What kind of percentage is going to be invested in Gilmore.

ROWLAND: We'll have the designs and the consultation done on that. We should know by the first half of next year precisely, where those locations are going to be, or at least a really good idea of where they're going to be located. But I think it's important to stress that this program is also based on co-investment at different levels of government. We are also looking at having that multi-carrier component which hasn't previously existed or only to a very limited extent. So irrespective of what carrier you are with, you are able to get better coverage. In fact, we've got two parallel processes going on at the moment, we have a Parliamentary Inquiry into Multicarrier Technology, which can be delivered in a number of ways. 

But ultimately, this is about getting the best bang for the taxpayer buck, and delivering the best outcomes for consumers. We've also got, as I mentioned, our independent national audit into mobile coverage, which will be done in parallel. But that will give us a really good idea of where some of those black spots are. As Fiona and her constituents will tell you, the carriers have coverage maps, but often they're predictive and they're not always exactly accurate. But this will be a really important input to inform future investment decisions not only for the Government, but also for the private sector. 

JOURNALIST: This is obviously something that takes a long time to kind of roll out. Do we have an expected timeframe? 

ROWLAND: Well, let's be clear, we've just announced this in the Budget last week. We will undertake a very clear process of consultation on the guidelines for this because again, this is involving a large amount of taxpayers’ money as well as private sector investment. But we certainly expect this to be done expeditiously. By the first half of next year, we'll have a much clearer picture and I look forward to coming back here in Gilmore and going right across the regions to announce further progress in this area. 

JOURNALIST: With the audits happening, is it premature to be trying to fund projects before you complete the audit? Is there a potential of missing some of the most vital black spots?

ROWLAND: I think it's important to do them in parallel. That's because we're leveraging off existing assets, which are the Australia Post fleet, using sensors and other technology to give some guidance there. But let's also remember, there's also a lot of data that's out there already. We wouldn't want this process to be held up. Certainly, it's going to be an important input.  As we go along and design this program, we're going to be informed by all the data we have around us so we can make the best investment decisions with taxpayer funds.

JOURNALIST: Does the Government's commitment to tackling mobile black spots take into consideration the need for vulnerable communities and volunteers to communicate in bushfire-prone districts? 

ROWLAND: Absolutely. That's part of our rationale for this. This recognises that first responders and emergency crews need to have that connectivity, especially during natural disasters.  What we're doing here complements other work the Australian Government is doing with the STAND process, for example – the Strengthening Telecommunications Against Natural Disasters program – ensuring that even if the land infrastructure goes out by result of some natural disaster, we still have that satellite connectivity. So, this is part of a holistic suite that we are pursuing, not only through the Australian Government's direct investment in telco, but also leveraging off the work that NBN Co is doing. It's very much part of the entire solution that we're bringing to this, recognising that unfortunately, as we have more frequent and more severe natural disasters, we need to make sure we are as ready as possible and taking on board all the recommendations of the various inquiries that have been done into previous disasters. 

JOURNALIST: And what's the current criteria for a community to receive Government assistance in improving its mobile coverage? Specifically, if it's in a black spot?

ROWLAND: Those guidelines are being formulated right now. It's very important to do them in consultation with the community and also with the carriers themselves. We want to ensure that there are those incentives for investment and we also want to ensure that where there may not be so many incentives – for example, if there isn't a strong business case – we're still catering to people who need this connectivity. The Government is very mindful that irrespective of where you live or work, you should have the same opportunities for the best communications infrastructure and that's exactly what this package is delivering.