Tuesday, 27 February 2007
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Coonan. Will the minister advise the Senate of changes to mobile phone services in rural and regional areas and of how the government will continue to ensure existing coverage and services are protected? Is the minister aware of any alternative policies?
I thank Senator Nash for the question and for her longstanding and ongoing interest in regional Australia and world-class communications services. Mobile phones are, of course, now an essential communications device for most Australians. Despite our vast and varied terrain, we have managed to extend mobile phone coverage to 98 per cent of the population and there are now around 20 million mobile phones in Australia. This is the result of careful planning, targeted investment and appropriate regulation from this government to provide universal access to services in a competitive market. It is this approach which has seen the cost of telecommunications services decrease by more than 25 per cent since 1996. The quality and reliability of mobile phone coverage is of paramount concern to the government and, indeed, to all citizens.
The Australian government welcomes Telstra’s early upgrade to its Next G mobile network, which the carrier announced will see the world’s first 200-kilometre cell range and significantly higher speeds to extend the capacity of the network. However, the government is also committed to ensuring a smooth transition to the new network for CDMA users, particularly those living in rural, regional and remote areas. To ensure a smooth transition to Next G, I have established a working group to consider key issues such as the information Telstra provides to customers, handset availability and coverage. I have sought and obtained an assurance from Telstra that rural and regional areas will enjoy the same or better coverage and services under its replacement network, Next G. Even if this assurance is met at an earlier time, Telstra will not be switching off the CDMA network before the end of January next year.
To ensure adequate coverage before any switch-off is effected, I directed ACMA—the Australian Communications and Media Authority—last year to undertake coverage audits to verify the quality and reach of the new Next G service. I am pleased to announce today that the first of two national coverage audits has been completed by ACMA. The audit test showed CDMA coverage in nearly 100 representative sites across the country, and the audit tested almost 100 sites. The second national audit will test coverage of the Telstra Next G network. This will occur once Telstra advises that the new network is fully deployed.
From the constant interjections opposite, I am sure that Labor is very embarrassed about the policies that it had when it was in government. We need only contrast our approach with the kind of treatment that rural and mobile phone users received under the last Labor government. When last in government, Labor simply shut down the old analog mobile network without having any kind of replacement network in place, leaving rural phone users simply stranded without a service. I think we know that, should they ever get back into government, there is a very dire risk that—
Labor will cut back essential consumer safeguards, including the right to these very important, accessible and affordable services. Unlike Labor, this government is committed to providing quality telecommunications services to all Australians, irrespective of where they live.