Regional and rural mobile phone users are among the big losers in last night’s budget with no funding for Australia’s mobile phone blackspot program beyond the next financial year.
Deputy leader of the Nationals and Minister for Regional Communications, Bridget McKenzie, this morning defended the Federal Government’s investment in regional communications.
“We’ve done a lot in this space since we came to government,” she said.
“When we started the program we all had CDMA phones, dial up internet.
“We flipped that, and started rolling out in the regions rather than capital cities.
Senator McKenzie said with two Sky Muster satellites servicing regional and rural areas not connected by fibre, 87 per cent of Australia has NBN coverage available.
But she conceded “there’s much more to be done”.
Communications review to continue
Kristy Sparrow from the group Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Remote Australia (BIRRR) said the funding drop-out was disappointing.
She said the lack of continued funding was not a complete surprise.
“I think that they still need to do a lot of work in regards to mobile blackspots.
“And I would have hoped that they would have at least mentioned that in the budget.”
Senator McKenzie also pointed to the announcement last week of the committee that will undertake the review of telecommunications services in regional, rural and remote areas.
“We’ve got a statutory view into rural and regional communication,” she said.
“Every three years we have to, no matter who is in government actually, to examine whether rural and regional Australia has access to telecommunications and how that compares with regional and urban service provision.
“I brought forward the review from the end of the year to the start so I can then look at the recommendations and get on with implementing them.”
Farming lobbies disappointed
The National Farmers Federation said the budget halt in fixing mobile blackspots overlooked the challenge of mobile connectivity in country areas.
Chief executive Tony Mahar said those who have been waiting for new telecommunications infrastructure in their area may now miss out.
“This is a big disappointment for farmers who are waiting for a tower in their region,” he said.
Mr Mahar said the NFF had been hoping the budget would signal a greater commitment to mobile blackspots and telecommunications.
“If we are going to get to a $100 billion industry, telecommunications and digital technology is going to play a part in that journey,” he said.
“While this Government’s investment in new mobile towers has been strong we’re now facing a situation where new investment will halt next financial year.”
Continuing to chase a signal
Andrew Weidemann runs a 3,500 hectare barley, canola and pulse farm in the Wimmera in Western Victoria.
He said a third of his property has extremely poor or no mobile reception and it affected his business operations.
“I’m really disappointed because we’ve got various areas around the farm where we have no mobile reception still and it’s frustrating us because it’s a cost to business,” he said.
“Just yesterday we were struggling to get onto our local agronomist, we couldn’t get phone reception.”
Mr Weidemann said it wastes time to return to the house to make calls, or wander around trying to find a patch of good reception.
“They’ve got to increase the funding to try and fix it as quickly as possible.”
Mr Weidemann said he was unhappy about expenditure on other technologies before mobile black spots are fixed.
“It’s all well and good to spend money on satellites and GPS to look at the country,” he said.
“But here and now, in terms of productivity that is happening on a farm, that’s where we need the money.”
BIRRR’s Kristy Sparrow said one of the other problems was the excessive time it took for mobile towers to be built once they were announced.