Wednesday, 4 May 2016
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Minister for Communications, Senator Fifield. In April 2016 a bus driver was walking with a school group in the historic rural town of Walhalla, in my state of Victoria, when he collapsed from a suspected heart attack and fell seven metres down an embankment. With non-existent mobile communications access within the proximity of the township of Walhalla, there are ongoing communications issues which then create issues with connecting to the appropriate emergency services in the face of an incident.
In this incident, there were an unnecessarily large number of emergency services personnel deployed from all over Victoria, as far as two hours away, which, due to miscommunication, included a number of teams that were not required. Due to the delay in the response, this incident unfortunately ended with a fatality. Can the minister inform the Senate if there is any scope for funding beyond the $60 million announced for the second round of the Mobile Black Spots Program, despite the disappointment of further funding not being addressed in the 2016-2017 federal budget?
I thank Senator Muir for his question, and acknowledge that it is a very sad story that he has recounted. While I cannot make any specific comment about the emergency response in this particular circumstance, I have heard similar accounts.
Just by way of background, mobile networks have developed differently in Australia to the fixed-line network. Fixed line has essentially been, over time, a government endeavour. It has been through the PMG, Telecom and Telstra. Mobile networks on the other hand have developed commercially and, I guess you could say, organically.
We have something in the order of 99 per cent coverage by population for the mobile network, but that represents only about 30 per cent of the landmass. So clearly there are gaps and there is a need for government incentives to address those gaps. The previous coalition government had a program to do that. I regret to say that in the six years of the Labor government there was not a dollar spent on addressing mobile phone black spots, which is why in opposition Mr Hartsuyker, with Mr Turnbull, came up with the Mobile Black Spots Program, which Mr Fletcher put in place. As a result of that program $100 million of Commonwealth government money has been leveraged into $385 million, taking into account the contributions of telcos, local governments and state governments, which has seen half of the 6,000 community-nominated mobile black spots addressed through 499 mobile base stations or upgrades. That is a three-year program. As Senator Muir quite rightly pointed out, we have also announced an additional $60 million for stage 2 of the Mobile Black Spot Program.
Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Under the eligibility assessment criteria, the coverage benefit addresses the number of premises located within the new handheld coverage footprint. Towns such as Walhalla may only have under 20 permanent residents, yet the over 120,000 annual tourists who would also benefit from such infrastructure are not taken into consideration under the assessment. Has the government assessed flaws such as this under the eligibility criteria for Mobile Black Spot Program prior to the second round?
Opposition senators interjecting—
I think it is important to note that the number of premises covered is only one of a number of assessment criteria used to determine the list of locations. Under round 2 of the program—similar to round 1—each proposed base station will be assessed against eight criteria: the amount of new coverage to be delivered in square kilometres; the number of premises located within the new handheld coverage footprint, as well as the length of major transport routes to be covered; the remoteness of the proposed site; whether the site was nominated as a priority by the local member of parliament; the amount of financial co-contribution being provided; the net cost to the Commonwealth; the level of service being offered; and a commitment of use from competing mobile operators to co-locate on the site. The sites also need to meet criteria to allow for an equitable distribution of funded base stations across Australia.
Opposition senators interjecting—
Thank you, Mr President. I was not sure if we would get there! Can the minister explain how the government will be addressing the future need for the Mobile Black Spot Program, which is vital to rural areas and their future growth, which was initially made clear due to the oversubscription to the program?
The next major milestone for the program will be the conclusion of the competitive selection process for round 2. That is scheduled to occur on 14 June 2016. Following the conclusion of that process my department will assess the proposals against the eligibility criteria. The department will use the assessment process to prepare a draft merit list of base stations, which will then be provided to Minister Nash, who has primary carriage in this area, who is doing a sensational job.
The locations to be funded under round 2 are expected to be announced in the second half of 2016. Meanwhile the rollout of the 499 base stations I referred to earlier under round 1 of the program will continue. To date 21 sites have already been activated across New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. That is 21 more sites than were activated under the previous government. We have a program; they did not have one. We are delivering; they did not. They never will. (Time expired)