Bucolics to get with the program

Rural and regional Australia will receive $65 million in community-based communications and internet project funding, according to the federal government.

The Department of Transport and Regional Services and the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA) said that the funds will be distributed under the existing Networking the Nation (NTN) program.

According to a statement by the relevant ministers ylast week, the 104 projects funded in this round will augment existing communications services and will facilitate growth in areas such as employment and education, health care services and export industries for regional, rural and remote Australia.

The current expenditures form a part of the $171 million allocated as "Social Bonus" funding realised through the sale of the second tranche of Telstra.

According to DCITA spokesman Sasha Grebe, "Projects were approved by the NTN board, an independent body which works at arm's length from the government. They determine the value of the proposals, which range from building of a single mobile phone tower to the establishment in rural NSW of 55 Community Technology Centres." The latter effort, according to the Department, will receive $8.25 million.

Among the fund allocations is a $20.3 million package to deliver affordable online access to communities in rural and regional Australia through the Farmwide Regional Access Network Internet Access for All project.

Tasmanian e-commerce will get a $6.6 million boost via further funding for the Tasmanian Electronic Commerce Centre.

Asked whether some of the money might not be wasted if infrastructure, cost and service levels in regional areas -- the subject of often-repeated complaints from country residents -- aren't improved, Sasha Grebe responded: "It's a two-pronged approach. Included in other Telstra Social Bonus initiatives are the $150 million for untimed local call access in 'extended zones', which cover about 80 per cent of the land mass, the BITS project, and more.

"Telstra is proceeding with the ADSL rollout, with the first areas coming online in August. The infrastructure issue certainly is being addressed."

Applications are open for a third round of project funding which, according to Grebe, will come from the same budget, and is not dependent on further sales of Telstra.

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