Australia's national auditor has criticised the federal government’s mobile blackspot program for duplicating existing coverage, inadequately assessing tower proposals, and failing to properly monitor the program's performance.
The Australian National Audit Office report found that while the blackspot program had guidelines in place to ensure it achieved maximum value for money, these guidelines focused more on the cost to Commonwealth than additional coverage or community benefits.
As a result, 89 of the 499 base stations installed through the $385 million infrastructure program, which together represent a cost of $28 million, provided “minimal new coverage” to consumers, the audit office found.
A further 39 of the towers were located within 10 kilometres of a base station that was already on another telco’s existing network expansion plan.
The ANAO also found the Department of Communications did not obtain reliable, independent data on mobile coverage across Australia. Instead, it collated a spreadsheet it called the database of reported locations, and relied solely on information from stakeholders to make its assessments.
The department had been overwhelmed by the number of applications it received – more than 10,000 in total – and did not develop a plan to guide the work required to develop and manage the database, the auditors found.
While the nominations were of varying quality, there was no clear basis to determine whether the information was complete and accurate, they said.
“Without a performance monitoring and evaluation framework in place, it is not clear how data from completed projects will be aggregated by the department to inform an assessment of the extent to which the program is achieving its objectives,” the ANAO said.
While the department strongly encouraged applicants to colocate new towers with NBN infrastructure, the ANAO found the department did not obtain information on which proposals were to be colocated.
While the contracts have provisions to claw back funding for where towers cost less than anticipated, the department failed to anticipate that telcos would pool their funding and didn't implement any oversight of the spending.
“Without additional performance monitoring and evaluation measures, the department is highly dependent on the funding recipient’s appointed auditor to appropriately verify records of receipt and expenditure,” the ANAO found.
The ANAO made three main recommendations to improve the program: establish minimum scores for assessment criteria; implement an "appropriately detailed" assessment methodology; and introduce a performance measurement and evaluation framework to ensure the program is achieving its objectives.
In its response, the Communications department argued duplicated coverage could benefit consumers through increased competition.
“The department is of the view that extending new coverage is just one of the aims of the program and that the mobile telecommunications infrastructure being funded through the program also achieves the program’s objective of providing the potential for improved competition,” it said.
In June last year, the federal government awarded funds for 499 base stations to be constructed as part of the first round of the mobile blackspot program. It has subsequently committed to spending an additional $120 million for a second and third round of the program.