Ministers for the Department of Communications and the Arts

The Hon Paul Fletcher MP

Previous Parliamentary Secretary
to the Minister for Communications

Transcript of the Hon Paul Fletcher MP on ABC South East NSW

21 January 2014

Paul Fletcher MP
Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Communications

TIM HOLT:

More than ever before, mobile phones are the essential communication tool in this day and age, and yet coverage across this and many other regional areas of the state remains patchy in parts, to say the least. The Federal Government has put aside some money to start fixing the problem - $100 million to be exact. But first of all, it has to work out how it will structure the program, and to that end, a discussion paper has been released outlining a number of options.

Paul Fletcher is the Federal Member for Bradfield, he's the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Communications. Paul Fletcher joins us this morning.

Paul, good morning and welcome.

PAUL FLETCHER:

Good morning, Tim.

TIM HOLT:

Paul, how are you hoping that this program will work? You're calling for submissions from the public on it.

PAUL FLETCHER:

Look, that's right. So the Commonwealth Government is going to spend $100 million on this program. This was an election commitment of the Coalition at the last election. What we hope to do is to leverage about the same amount of money from private sector players, particularly the phone companies, but potentially other players, and so there's a couple of things that we're wanting to work out in this discussion paper that we've issued. The first is how really should we set this up, and we've put a few ideas in the paper.

We said in the policy that we wanted to spend $80 million on the mobile network expansion project and then $20 million on the particular black spots project, and that one is focused on areas with unique coverage problems, such as areas that have high demand in seasonal holiday periods, which obviously would certainly relevant in many of the areas that you broadcast to.

TIM HOLT:

Well, it certainly is, and it's been an area of some concern, and whether it be cover, of course, in an area from - along the coast, being a long stretch of New South Wales coastline, basically Ulladulla to the Victorian border, then across the Monaro and into the Snowy Mountains. So there's - in winter you've got very strong tourism numbers heading into the mountains, and, of course, over the warmer months you've got a great number of tourists heading to those coastal centres, but it varies around the region over the year. And that has been an area of, well, quite a number of complaints.

In fact, in some of those areas along the coast and across the Monaro [indistinct] mountains there, still is little or no coverage at all. There are some real black spots.

PAUL FLETCHER:

Look, there's not doubt that mobile phone coverage in the New South Wales South East and around the country is often not where we would all want it to be. So the networks have been built out by the three private sector players, Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, and there are often situations where they can't make a business case to build to a particular area, and that's really the thinking behind putting this money up, this public money, together with some private money to try and get base stations built, mobile phone base stations, in areas where today they haven't been built.

There - it's an expensive business, several hundred thousands dollars to build a base station, and what we also want to do through this program is get community feedback as to the areas of greatest need, because what we want to do is try and allocate these based upon areas of highest priority. Obviously a national program, a big country, so it won't solve every problem, but what we hope it will do is stimulate the building of quite a significant number of base stations to get coverage in locations that otherwise are probably not likely to get coverage under the existing plans of the carriers for quite some time.

TIM HOLT:

Of course, we quite often hear of particular concerns from people about access in emergency situations, and the issue with that is it is just what can we expect out of a mobile phone, you know, mobile phone coverage? Because emergencies can happen anywhere from very populated to very remote areas. Is it fair to have an expectation that you're going to have that sort of coverage everywhere?

PAUL FLETCHER:

And the reality is in a country as big as Australia, you simply can't have coverage everywhere, but we all want to see coverage extended as much as it possibly can be. And what this $100 million allocation is intended to do is to get base stations, mobile phone base stations, to areas where they don't exist today. And as you say, that's so important for safety reasons, be it car crash, be it bushfire or other issues, but it's also very important for economic development. You know, one of the things that people often say is if you're in a rural area, you know, if we don't have mobile coverage in our town then tourists won't stop. So these are really critical factors, but then also as people do, you know, carry out many aspects of their lives on mobile phones, just the importance of having coverage increased is high.

So that's really the intention behind this program: to have some public money working with private sector money to get mobile phone coverage into some locations that wouldn't otherwise be there. The national program - one of the important things is we want to identify the priority areas. Peter Hendy as the Member for Eden-Monaro has been very strong in my ear about the importance of getting more coverage in the electorate of Eden-Monaro. Certainly anybody who has suggestions as to locations should contact Peter's office, or they can email it to an email address: mobilecoverage - one word - at communications-dot-gov-dot-au with your suggestions.

TIM HOLT:

And the options in the paper, just briefly, Paul?

PAUL FLETCHER:

Well, amongst the things we're looking at is do we allocate all of this money in a competitive process and we ask for three carriers, for example, to put up a plan nationally and say this is how many base stations we could build if we got this subsidy? Do we break it up area by area? Are there players other than the mobile phone carriers who should be involved? And one important aspect of this is we're also interested in players like local councils who might have a willingness to put in a bit of money if they can get some Commonwealth money as well and then potentially match that with some private sector money.

So one group that we're certainly working with as potential project proponents, people who'd sponsor this, would be a local council, and we've had some interest from local councils around the country for that particular idea so there's a range of people who we're hoping will come forward with proposals.

TIM HOLT:

Just finally, the interest from the networks in collaborating on this. What's your sense? Have there been any feelers?

PAUL FLETCHER:

Look, the networks - the carriers are definitely interested. There have been similar programs in the past. This is considerably more money than has previously been allocated for a single program of this kind, and they're all definitely interested, and what we're trying to do at this stage is get their clever ideas and everybody else's clever ideas. Then what we do, we digest all of those and we say okay, here's the rules, here's how we're going to allocate the money, now come forward and we'll have a competitive selection process.

The hope is that we can work through all of that, and the hope would be to have some new base stations in the field at some point in 2015 as a consequence of this process. These things take a while to work through, but we're determined to get good value for taxpayers' money here but also get some good ideas, and that's what this discussion paper is designed to elicit.

TIM HOLT:

Paul, do appreciate your time this morning.

PAUL FLETCHER:

Thanks indeed, Tim.

TIM HOLT:

Paul Fletcher, the Federal Member for Bradfield. He's the Parliamentary Secretary for the Minister for Communications, and of course Bradfield is in the North Sydney area.

Sixteen minutes past 9 it is, on your local ABC. Now, that website, if you would like to put a submission in and I'm sure there are many communities around the South East that would like to have a say on this, mobilecoverage@communications.gov.au is the easy way to go. And if you just go to the website communications.gov.au, follow the links, you will be able to get the discussion paper.

END

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