The recent announcement that the NSW government will invest $50 million to fix phone and internet communications problems in regional areas has been welcomed by Australia's peak body for consumer representation in communications, ACCAN.
The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) is part of the Regional, Rural and Remote Communications Coalition (RRRCC), which is a group of over 20 organisations that have united to better champion telecommunication services in rural and regional Australia.
The funding is open to applications from individuals and community groups and will be used to build and upgrade mobile base stations, connect businesses to global markets and schools with innovative learning resources and help small communities that are struggling with connectivity.
The funding is part of the NSW government’s $1.3 billion Regional Growth Fund announced in the 2017/18 NSW Budget.
An ACCAN spokesperson said the funding was a “positive step”.
“It acknowledges that lack of mobile coverage is a key rural, regional and remote issue. Members of the RRRCC have been urging the NSW government to invest in improving regional communications, and leverage off significant investment in other infrastructure projects – the NBN and Mobile Black Spots Program,” they said.
“We look forward to seeing how this $50 million investment will achieve this, and deliver the best value for the people of regional NSW in areas where it is most needed.”
There has been a renewed commitment by governments to reduce mobile black spots and the NSW government committed $39 million in a co-investment with the Commonwealth Mobile Blackspots Program, supporting more than 174 towers under the program and delivering 36 new or upgraded mobile base stations in regional NSW since 2015.
Previous mobile black spot programs drew criticism from the Australian National Audit Office for funding towers that added little to coverage or increased competition in an existing area.
The ACCAN spokesperson said consumers in rural and regional areas are crying out for improved mobile coverage, especially in vital community areas and high traffic areas that are at risk from having no mobile coverage.
“As consumers in rural, regional and remote areas urgently need improved mobile coverage, it is imperative that the NSW Government prioritises the most underserviced Black Spot areas, including vital community areas, such as schools and emergency evacuation areas that lack mobile coverage,” the ACCAN spokesperson said.
“One such example is the Clare Public School near Booligal, which has no coverage but forms an important community hub in multiple ways, as it is an emergency evacuation point.”
The ACCAN spokesperson said an ongoing program to extend country mobile coverage is one of the key policy asks of the RRRCC to help address the ongoing issue.
“The RRRCC is seeking a minimum of $60 million annually to be spent on extending and improving mobile coverage,” they said.
“Federal and State and Territory programs must be coordinated, engage communities throughout the process, utilise existing infrastructure and target areas most in need of increased coverage.
“Where possible, the NSW Government should also ensure that expanded coverage is available to all members of the community, regardless of the mobile provider they choose.”