Federal Member For Banks
Shadow Minister for Communications

Shadow Minister for Communications, Transcript – Breakfast with Jeremy Lee – Mobile Black Spot Program; Visit to Wannon electorate

Subject: Mobile Black Spot Program; Visit to Wannon electorate


Jeremy Lee: How do you find mobile coverage around our region? Are there particular areas where there are real black spots still? I’m sure there are. In fact, we know there are. If I asked you to send me an SMS right now, would you maybe have to climb onto the roof and stand on your toes to make it work? David Coleman is the Shadow Minister for Communications. He’s going to be in our region in Colac today for a community forum on mobile black spots. He’s with us this morning. David Coleman, welcome to you.

David Coleman: Good morning, Jeremy.

Jeremy Lee: What’s prompted this forum today?

David Coleman: Well, look, mobile coverage is always a really big issue and Dan Tehan has been very passionate about getting more mobile coverage into Wannon through our Mobile Black Spot Program and so it’s really about coming down there today, listening to the community, hearing about the issues and doing everything we can to support the community in getting more mobile coverage. We’ve got a very unfortunate situation at the moment where the Government, through round six of the Mobile Black Spot Program has very much favoured Labor electorates and the allocation of funds. Only three locations got funded in Victoria and all of them are in Labor electorates, so none in Dan’s electorate at all. And so, we’re wanting to correct that and to hear from the community about where the greatest sources of need are.

Jeremy Lee: Alright, I know you have been talking quite a bit, I think over the past month about some of the allocations that have been made around mobile black spot funding. Have you looked closely at the areas where the funding has been allocated just to see what issues exist in those places?

David Coleman: Yeah, look, basically what’s happened is Minister Rowland has hand selected 54 locations around the country. Now 74% of them are in Labor seats and that’s obviously not logical because Labor doesn’t hold 74% of regional seats. It’s actually more like a third. In New South Wales and Victoria, remarkably, 100% of the locations are in Labor electorates. There’s 27 in New South Wales, there’s 3 in Victoria. And in the document, the guidelines for this program, there’s a column that says specific mobile coverage of area issue (if known). And for 20 of the 54 in the Department’s own document- that column is blank. So, there are some real question marks about how this list has been put together. Not saying that there isn’t some legitimate places on the list, there are, but it clearly hasn’t been done in an objective or fair way. Because if it was, what would happen is communities like communities in Wannon and around Colac and other places would be able to put in applications and have that considered on its merits. But that didn’t happen and that’s wrong.

Jeremy Lee: Alright, well look, the current Labor Government has, of course, been in power for, well, not quite a year yet. Prior to that we did have 9 years of the Coalition running these things. Over that time, how much or how many of these black spots that we know about were attended to?

David Coleman: Yeah, more than 1200 around the country. So basically we started this program back in 2014 because the truth is there are many places in regional Australia that just don’t have the mobile coverage that they need and it causes huge issues both for rural communities, for farming communities and also in emergency services, because as you know, and very sadly, sometimes there are situations where people are in emergencies and can’t get mobile coverage. So, about 1200 sites, some of the money is from the Commonwealth and some of it uses money from the private sector. But all up it was about $875 million. So, a lot of money. And importantly in Dan’s electorate in Wannon there were about 20 locations that got funded and I was just having a look at some of the places, like Digby and Nerang and Lexton and Cape Bridgewater and Nelson and a whole bunch of others. So, we got a lot done in Wannon. But there’s always more to do because there are many places that still have mobile coverage issues, and that’s why it’s so important that this program is run in a fair way.

Jeremy Lee: All right, and how does the program actually work in terms of working with the providers? Does it fund providers to build towers or who actually makes the infrastructure?

David Coleman: Yeah. So basically, what happens is providers often with the support of a community groups will get together and effectively pitch the funding for a location. Well, this is how it should work. It didn’t work like this in round six in Minister Rowland’s round. Yeah, so basically a provider in the community gets together and say, ‘hey, here’s a problem in this particular location. We the provider, (it might be Telstra, might be Optus, whoever) will put in this much money and we want this much money from the Government to help make it viable’, because what the providers argue is for the more remote marginal areas in terms of the number of people that are there, it’s harder for them to make it work commercially. So that’s where the Government steps in and says, okay, well we’ll chip in some money and chip in, a lot of money, hundreds of millions to make this happen. And that’s how it should work. And the good thing about that is it’s a merit-based process. So, if you’re in a community where you can make a really strong argument to say, well, we’ve got a lot of people who are affected here, we don’t have mobile coverage, we need that support. It goes to the Department of Communications and goes through a merit-based process. But just to give you an example, in round six, so the town of Healesville in the Upper Yarra, they’ve had a lot of bushfire issues over the years. As you’d be aware, their council and community wanted to get together to put in an application for funding in round six, very clear and transparent need. They weren’t allowed because they weren’t on the list. And that’s clearly not how it should be run.

Jeremy Lee: Yeah. Is there an argument here, though, that, I mean, given those commercial pressures that that’s always going to play a part in this and there are some parts that are just never going to get good mobile coverage because no one will ever be able to demonstrate that it makes commercial sense.

David Coleman: Well, what’s basically happened is at the start of the system, the places that were, I guess, in a sense, the most commercially viable were the first ones to get funded. So, the providers would say, well, we can put in, say, $100,000 and we need $50,000 or whatever it was that the case may be. And as you go further and further into the program you do get to areas with less and less people that are more and more difficult commercially to provide. But that’s why the program exists. So, you’re right in the sense that it gets, you go further and further into remote areas over time, you reach less and less people through an additional black spot. But that’s not to say they’re not important. I’m going to a place today, the Redwood Otways. I’m going with Dan Tehan, which as I understand it, is quite a tourist location and there’s no mobile coverage there, apparently. And so, people who are travelling through there and want to make a call, basically can’t. So, we’re going to go there and talk to some people in the community and find out more about that. So it’s, in a sense, it’s a task that is never complete because there will always be more locations that need support and that’s why it’s been running now for eight years. And basically, what you need is a local member that’s passionate about it, gets on the front foot that says, ‘hey, we need mobile coverage in these areas’, and then you need a fair and merit-based system where the Department goes through and makes assessments on its merit, and we’ve done that on more than a thousand occasions in Government. And it’s unfortunate that that’s not what happened in round six under the new Government.

Jeremy Lee: Is this also becoming a bit irrelevant as we’re seeing things like StarLink and so on, getting up and running? Is there an argument as well there, perhaps that in the not-too-distant future we won’t need these mobile towers if there are alternate ways to be accessing communications?

David Coleman: Yeah, look, it’s a really interesting point. And StarLink has been, frankly, incredibly successful in the short period of time. It already has more subscribers than NBN’s SkyMuster service. And clearly there are lots of people in regional Australia who are finding the StarLink service to be very useful. Having said that, there are things that mobile towers can do that satellite services don’t do as well. The coverage tends to be higher quality through mobile. It tends to be lower cost to households. And for the foreseeable future, mobile coverage is going to be really important. I think the satellite services, and there is going to be more of them, not just StarLink, there’s going to be lots of what is called low orbit satellites. They’ll grow and they’ll continue to provide more services. But mobile is going to be hugely significant for many years to come.

Jeremy Lee: Alright, if people would like to talk more with you about this today, you will be at the Elliminyt Hall, public hall from 3pm for that forum in Colac. David Coleman, thank you very much for your time this morning. And look, I hope it’s an illuminating trip to the southwest today.

David Coleman: Thanks, Jeremy. Really good to talk to you.

Jeremy Lee: David Coleman there, who is the Shadow Minister for Communications. So yes, if you can get there today, if you’d like to raise any issues around black spots, there is a meeting happening this afternoon at the Elliminyt Public Hall at 3 o’clock. He is not coming any further West as far as we know, but I presume you can probably put in any further thoughts around this to Dan Tehan’s office and he would be happy to pass that on.

The Hon. David Coleman MP
Shadow Minister for Communications
Federal Member for Banks