Towers a benefit, but more work needed

NSW Farmers believes the Western region has “again missed out” in the latest stage of the federal government’s program to improve connectivity for mobile phones and data.

The organisation is concerned that even with the government’s Mobile Black Spot Program “there is still a very large bulk of regional NSW that is without mobile coverage”.

It was commenting after the release of an indicative roll-out schedule for new and upgraded towers in Round 2 of the program.

The Central West is to get seven towers located at Ballimore and Westella near Dubbo, Hargraves near Mudgee, Napoleon Reef near Bathurst, South Cadia near Blayney, Summer Hill Creek in Cabonne, and The Yellow Mountain near Condobolin in the Lachlan Shire.

The seven were included in 39 new and upgraded towers for NSW and 266 nationwide. The government committed $60 million “leveraging a total investment of $213 million”.

Locations for towers for Round 3 of the program have not been finalised.

The government has said it will not fund future rounds of the program until the telecommunications companies had finished building towers funded in the three rounds.

NSW Farmers’ Rural Affairs chair Sonia O’Keefe said the program is a vital part of efforts to end the data drought in NSW, which was why the organisation supports it. However there was much more work to do.

“NSW Farmers’ welcomes the announcement that seven new mobile towers in NSW’s central west have been funded in the latest round …” Ms O’Keefe said.

While NSW Farmers was pleased to see all three telcos - Telstra, Optus and Vodafone - engaged in the program and bidding for towers in the seven locations, it feels it would be of public and community benefit if the telcos worked together and agreed to share the tower infrastructure.

“The Mobile Black Spot Program is a vital part of efforts to end the data drought in NSW.  Collaboration between telcos could end this data drought sooner and bring efficient and reliable coverage to rural and regional consumers.”

“It is also worth noting that out of the seven locations announced, members consider only two of the locations as requiring mobile black spot towers, that being the corridor between Mudgee and Dubbo.”

Ms O’Keefe said while members acknowledge the importance of the five other locations, they have not expressed strong sentiments over a lack of coverage in them compared to other areas.

“It cannot be denied, the new towers will benefit consumers and farming families but with communities across regional NSW still clamouring for better coverage, there is more work to be done,” she said.

Ms O’Keefe said mobile black spots remain one of the greatest sources of frustration for members.

"The existence of a black spot creates heightened risks in situations of emergency, and impinges on farm business productivity,” she said.

“Even with the current Mobile Black Spot Program, there is still a very large bulk of regional NSW that is without mobile coverage. NSW Farmers has been concerned that the coverage map is not filling out fast enough,” she said.

Ms O’Keefe said even with the Federal government committing $213 million, boosted by an $8.3 million co-contribution from the NSW Government, a quick glance at the Department of Communications’ map of successful base stations shows that the NSW Western Division has again missed out.

“Round Two was widely acclaimed as ‘a win’ for remote communities because it carried extra incentive for telcos to co-contribute into remote areas. However, NSW Farmers’ feels that telcos are not interested in co-contributing and as a result regional and rural consumers come last in this fight,” she said.

“Further, given the ACCC’s recent decision on roaming, it is critical that any mobile network operator provided with government funds to build a tower is required to offer wholesale mobile service access to other mobile providers. This will mean that new towers reach as many customers as possible,” she said.

She said  the program has two aims, increasing regional coverage and also competition between carriers.

Round 1 of the program awarded the majority of sites to Telstra (420/499 sites).

“However, Telstra do not wholesale their mobile network where they face no competition. Therefore, the funding rounds will have significantly expanded coverage without expanding competition.

“Further, Round Two has seen no substantive change to the funding guidelines, and so there is little reason to expect a radically different result. The current Mobile Black Spot program guidelines hope to incentivise competition through co-operation between mobile network operators. However, this has not occurred with minimal co-sharing occurring under Round One, particularly on Telstra towers.”