Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has promised a future coalition government would spend $60 million filling mobile coverage gaps under a third round of the mobile blackspot program.
As foreshadowed by iTnews, the funding would come in addition to the $100 million the federal government contributed as part of the first round of the program, and the $60 million committed in round two.
At a press conference in the Victorian town of Anglesea today, Turnbull claimed the additional funding would address 9000 additional blackspots, providing an additional 68 square kilometres of coverage.
The proposal has received strong support from telcos, with Vodafone suggesting the Labor Party should offer a bipartisan commitment to the program.
Vodafone chief strategy officer Dan Lloyd, whose company has long advocated abolishing Telstra’s universal service obligation funding in favour of a permanent mobile blackspot program, said unreliable mobile coverage and lack of competition hurts regional and rural communities.
“We would like to see whichever party wins the July 2 election commit to a permanent and expanded mobile black spot program as soon as possible,” Lloyd told iTnews.
“While the total funding of $220 million won’t fix all of the mobile black spots in regional and rural Australia, it will start to address the mobile class divide which exists between these areas and the major cities.”
A Telstra spokesperson said a third round of the blackspot program would provide “great opportunities to bring mobile coverage to people and communities who currently have none”.
“We are rolling out mobile base stations to 429 black spots under round one of the program, and we have already delivered new and improved mobile coverage to a number of communities in just a few months," the spokesperson said.
AMTA chief executive officer Chris Althaus said mobile coverage would be a high priority during this election campaign because “rural and regional communities place a high value on this critical infrastructure that provides so much social and economic benefit, including increased safety at times of crisis”.
The policy was also welcomed by Optus, which told iTnews the company was “committed to communications for all Australians and continues to expand its mobile network by investing in 4G services across Australia”.
However, Labor’s regional communications spokesperson Stephen Jones claimed the Coalition had over-promised and under-delivered on addressing mobile blackspots.
“Of the 10,800 identified mobile black spots on the national data base less than 5 percent have been funded by the Turnbull government’s mobile black spot program,” Jones said.
“Of the 499 that have been funded, 416 were in Coalition electorates and only 21 have been switched on.”
Jones also claimed there had been some glaring omissions in where new base stations had been allocated under the first round of the black spot program, with some locations that should have been a high priority almost completely ignored.
“For example, the Labor-held electorate of McEwen is one of the most bushfire prone in the country. Over the last six summers there have been six major disasters in the region, including the devastating Black Saturday Fires of 2009,” Jones said.
“There are 95 blackspots that have been identified in the electorate but the area received just two of the 500 funded towers from round one of the Government’s program.
“In Bendigo there are 161 blackspots but only two were funded. In the Northern Territory the seat of Lingiari has 472 blackspots but only five were funded. In Wakefield, another area recently hit by tragic bushfires, there are 78 blackspots – none of which were funded.”
Jones said a Shorten Labor government would allocate mobile blackspot funds according to need, with a focus on areas affected by natural disasters.
Contracts for the first round of the mobile blackspot program were awarded in June last year, with telcos, state governments, local councils and other organisations contributing an additional $285 million.
The funds were awarded to Telstra to construct 429 new base stations as well as 250 mini 4G base stations, with Vodafone securing funding for 70 base stations and Optus missing out.
NSW received the most upgraded or new base stations (144), followed by Western Australia (130), Victoria (110), Queensland (68), Tasmania (31), South Australia (11) and the Northern Territory (5).
A second round of the program, with an additional $60 million in federal funding attached, was announced last December.