Shadow minister for regional communications Stephen Jones has pledged that a federal Labor government would continue to pursue co-investment to tackle mobile phone black sports.
“The job of addressing mobile black spots is not complete,” the Labor MP said in remarks prepared for today’s CommsDay Unwired Revolution conference in Sydney.
“More remains to be done, and we have to become smarter in how we approach it,” Jones said.
“Finding flexible and innovative ways to fund better mobile coverage in the regions is not only good for communities and inclusiveness, but it is good for economic growth.
“Labor is committed to the task of improving mobile coverage, and we remain committed to the government playing an active role to fund and facilitate progress where the market will not deliver outcomes.”
The MP did not reveal the detail of Labor’s policy — “we will have policy announcements to make on the mobile black spot program in the lead-up to the next federal election,” he told the conference — but said it would be based in part on the criticisms of the current program made by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) and the Productivity Commission.
The government is currently gearing up for a fourth round of the program, which has so far seen Canberra put $220 million towards boosting mobile coverage in regional and remote areas.
The competitive selection process for round four is expected to begin in the second half of this year.
The 2016 ANAO report that Jones alluded to in his speech said that the first round of the program “did not sufficiently target funding toward the expansion of coverage where coverage had not previously existed”.
Forty six of the 499 base stations funded by the first round of the program “provide no new coverage to either premises or major transport routes,” the ANAO found.
“A further 43 selected base stations did not provide enough coverage to qualify for a single point against the selection criteria for coverage benefit. These 89 base stations have a total cost to the public of $28 million in Commonwealth and state commitments, including Commonwealth funding of $18 million.”
Jones said the government has “wasted resources putting base stations in areas that didn’t improve or extend coverage, or that would have been built anyway” and “failed to articulate a clear set of principles or priorities for the allocation of funds”.
The shadow regional comms minister also said that the government had failed to drive mobile competition in regional areas.
Telstra — which has Australia’s most extensive regional mobile network — has received the lion’s share of the funding from the program.
Victoria is currently running its own black spot program, with the state government expressing a lack of confidence in how Canberra has allocated funding.
Jones said that in addition to funding base stations, technologies such as small cells, mobile repeaters and low-orbit satellites should be part of the program.
He said Labor backed “regional connectivity plans” based on collaboration with state governments, local councils, businesses and emergency service organisations.
“These plans could leverage off and identify existing public land and infrastructure such as fibre optic networks, wireless towers, light poles in an area that may be accessed to improve coverage,” he said.