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ABC South East NSW Breakfast with Simon Lauder

SIMON LAUDER:
Tathra has been named as a priority location to receive  upgrades to its telecommunications infrastructure. Bombala and Delegate are  also being promised better mobile coverage. Tathra will be one of 106 locations  across the country to receive a cut of $220 million worth of black spot funding  to improve phone coverage in the area. The Minister for Regional  Communications, Bridget McKenzie, joins us to tell us more.
Senator McKenzie, hello.

BRIDGET MCKENZIE:
G'day Simon. How's it going?

SIMON LAUDER:
Very well thanks, and some good news for people in Tathra,  Delegate and Bombala.

BRIDGET MCKENZIE:
Absolutely. I'm really proud to be able to announce our  priority location round funding, 125 base areas around the country that were  identified about a year ago as needing better regional communications. We've  funded 102 base stations in those areas including, as you said, Delegate,  Bombala. Carwoola's getting some help, and indeed we've got some base stations  for Tathra and Tumut. So your area is getting some well-deserved and needed  assistance, but right across the country in areas of the regions that are still  experiencing challenges with accessing mobile telecommunications, we're doing  everything we can as the Federal Government to make sure we address those  issues.

Because we know- as Tathra has experienced most recently,  but it's not just emergency service issues that we need this sort of coverage  for, but it's the development of our businesses, our economic growth, it's  about when we have tourism influxes over certain seasonal issues so that our  businesses can access it. It's not a luxury anymore for people from Sydney or  indeed even Melbourne to head out into the regions and expect to have good  mobile phone coverage when they get there, and that drives our local  businesses. But it's also to keep us socially connected. So I'm very proud  we're investing in this.

SIMON LAUDER:
Excellent. Now, to get a bit technical and get your  interpretations here, I understand Delegate and Bombala are getting what's  called macro base stations. So what are they?

BRIDGET MCKENZIE:
Well, we have a range of technical solutions to actually  solve a variety of issues. So sometimes you might need what's called a COW, or  a cell on wheels, and Tathra's seen what that is. Sometimes we need a full  mobile phone tower and they're incredibly expensive - hundreds of thousands of  dollars. Sometimes we can actually co-locate a mobile service provider on an  NBN station, and that saves the taxpayer a lot of money but extends the  coverage, and sometimes we can use macro or indeed smaller base stations. So  each technical solution has been delivered for that specific area, and the  challenges- if the topography's quite hilly, we'll need a different solution to  others if it's sort of a cyclone area, et cetera. So each solution for the 125  areas around the country has been targeted to what that particular area needs.

SIMON LAUDER:
And Tathra is getting a different solution. Telstra  apparently has committed to deploy a new 4G small cell base station. So it's  not necessarily voice calls?

BRIDGET MCKENZIE:
No, I've been assured that the solution's been provided by  the priority round are both data and voice services. So Tathra's having a  multitude of solutions, it's not just the smaller base station. We do know  we've got Optus coming on to co-locate with the NBN tower down the lower end of  town which will fix some other issues, because Tathra's, I guess, had some  issues since about 2009 with approvals and the like to get the mobile phone  towers where they need them. So we've got Optus coming on with NBN, we've got a  small base station down in the lower end of town, and I think as a combination,  those solutions will provide a much better regional comms footprint for the  town of Tathra as they deserve.

SIMON LAUDER:
And just looking back at some of the announcements in the  lead-up to the last election, this was actually an election commitment by the  Coalition and when Fiona Nash held the portfolio you now hold. So what has  changed since then? Is this a reannouncement or ….

BRIDGET MCKENZIE:
They have been very diligent within the department. The  telcos all came in and did it for those- the opportunity,  to service those priority locations and how  would they do that. One of the changes I've made when I became minister was to  say: righto, instead of a four-hour battery backup or power backup, you've got  to be 12 hours, right? Because we can't have people being without their mobile  phone services for extended periods of time. So what we're announcing today is  the result of the telcos actually assessing all the 125 areas, coming up with  their regional comms solution. And you know, the money's there, the approvals  there, and now we just need to get on the ground and get them built and I'm  really looking forward to switching the switch on a few as soon as possible.

SIMON LAUDER:
So, it's the difference between the Government saying: yes,  we'll fund it, we want this to happen. The telcos are saying: yes, it is  possible and this is how we'll do it.

BRIDGET MCKENZIE:
Yeah. What's been really great about the Mobile Black Spot  Program is we've been able to leverage private investment along with public  taxpayers. So, it's not the public that's having to foot the bill for  everything. So, for instances, this priority round, the Government, we're  putting- the taxpayer is putting in around $40 million. But that's being almost  doubled and a little bit more by the private sector. Rounds one and two, for  instance, combined Government and private investment meant $600 million was  being delivered across hundreds and hundreds of mobile black spot towers,  whereas if we had to foot the bill as taxpayers alone, it would have been a  quarter of that. So, this has been a really good model of leveraging Government  funds to get money out of the private sector really.

SIMON LAUDER:
It's 7.19. We're speaking with the Minister for Regional  Communications, Senator Bridget McKenzie. And, Senator McKenzie, it might be a  slightly different answer for each location, but any idea what the timeline is  for this becoming a reality, for it being installed?

BRIDGET MCKENZIE:
Oh look, I mean I'm from regional Australia, I would love  it to be yesterday because this means safety, it means educational outcomes, it  means economic development for the regions. But we've got a timeline on it, by  the end of this coming financial year. I'm confident the telcos are ready to  go. So, now the only break on this getting out on the ground and getting  developed and up will be local councils and the like putting planning  restrictions. We've funded almost 870 base stations around the country - 470 of  them are already up and going - but the greatest lag on getting those things  switched on has been local planning approvals. So, if I can encourage local  councils out there: our businesses need this infrastructure, our families need  it, our schools and our health providers. So, let's not put the brakes on.  Companies are ready to go, the Government's put the money in, let's get it  built.

SIMON LAUDER:
And I'm not sure if you are aware of the debate around  Numeralla. A lot of people say that the new tower that went up there is in the  wrong spot and not delivering optimal coverage. How are locations of these new  facilities to be determined?

BRIDGET MCKENZIE:
I think it's best left to the technical experts. I mean,  Optus, Telstra, Vodafone have engineers that have - it's usually the best way.  Sometimes it's not just the base station itself, but how it bounces the signal  to other base stations around the region and therefore extends the coverage and  reach. These are sometimes things we don't think about when we're thinking: is  it in my paddock? Is it in my backyard? It's all about taking the engineers and  the scientists' advice- is how I work because I'm no expert …

SIMON LAUDER:
[Interrupts] But cost is a factor as well. Telstra tells us  that is the factor at Numeralla.

BRIDGET MCKENZIE:
Well, it is. You've got to get the maximum coverage for the  funding envelope you have. I mean, and because certain planning isn't  recommended, et cetera, for other reasons other than great coverage. Then I  think it should be about getting maximum coverage for the cost, rather than  increasing the cost for the same amount of coverage.

SIMON LAUDER:
And, of course, poor mobile coverage in Tathra adding to  the drama and stress for Tathra residents on the day of those bushfires very  recently. Did that hasten this process? Did you, I guess, put the pressure on  this to make it happen?

BRIDGET MCKENZIE:
I put the rocket in the department mid-January. I said,  let's get this going. And I wasn't prepared to announce the priority round  funding until I'd found a solution for every single location that we'd  announced during the election. So that took a bit of time and a bit of  creativity on the telcos' part to meet my expectations. I'd also [indistinct]  the power backup requirements that I wanted. But I found, through the Tathra  disaster- you know, I was on the phone to the local area manager there, Chris  Taylor, hourly. He was fantastic, showing me photos, because we were sitting at  the time. Regular updates of when things were getting turned on. I'd rung Andy  Penn from Telstra, the CEO, Monday morning: right, what are you doing? How long  are these guys going to be without mobile phone coverage? Get onto it. And they  reassured me they were working as hard as they could to get it up and going.  So, I think it was a timely reminder of the importance of regional comms to our  communities, just not for economic development, but for our own safety. So, I'm  excited that we're getting these on the ground. But we can't get them on the  ground quick enough. So, local councils, help me out.

SIMON LAUDER:
Bridget McKenzie, great to talk to you this morning. Thanks  so much for your time.

BRIDGET MCKENZIE:
Anytime, Simon. Enjoy that beautiful coast.

SIMON LAUDER:
Will do. Senator Bridget McKenzie there, Minister for  Regional Communications, landlocked in Ballarat I believe.