Mobile Black Spot Program criticisms by ANAO and Productivity Commission





Subjects: Mobile Black Spot Program criticisms by ANAO and Productivity Commission.

INTERVIEWER (ANNE DELANEY): Senator Fiona Nash, always a pleasure to speak with you. It’s quite a frustrating topic for everybody. Senator Fiona Nash who is the Regional Telecommunications Minister. Her shadow counterpart is Stephen Jones, the Shadow Regional Communications Minister. Mr Jones thanks very much for having a chat with me this morning. You’ve listened to Senator Nash there first of all. From the Opposition’s point of view, what’s going wrong with this program?

STEPHEN JONES, SHADOW MINISTER FOR REGIONAL COMMUNICATIONS, SHADOW MINISTER FOR REGIONAL SERVICES, LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND TERRITORIES: Let’s identify the things we agree on. We agree that we cannot cover every black spot in the country. Damm big place. There’s over 10,000 listed black spots and there’s probably many more that haven’t been listed. Also I agree that there are finite resources in a government’s budget. That’s why we need to ensure that all the money that we do have is spent properly. If you look at the Audit Commission report into Round 1and the report that was released yesterday by the Productivity Commission, they’ve been scathing about the way that the money has been spent. For example, the Audit Commission report found that one in four of the black spot base stations funded in Round 1 did not extend mobile phone coverage. So if you’re in one of the black spot areas that didn’t get funding such as Clare, the public school that you mentioned or other areas in your listenership, you’ll be saying hang on a moment, how come we’re funding towers at close to $500,000 a pop in an area that doesn’t really extend coverage but we don’t have coverage in our areas? So that’s a critical point. Secondly, both Audit Commission and yesterday’s Productivity Commission report have said there’s too much politics involved in the allocation of these funds. Not enough weighting is given to areas of community need, particularly in areas affected by natural disaster and emergency service needs. More consideration needs to be given to these community needs, less to the politicisation of the project. We agree on both of these points and we are calling on the government to take heed of both of these reports and ensure that Round 3 doesn’t repeat the same mistakes.

INTERVIEWER: Now given that the report last year, the ANAO report was saying Round 1 was flawed, the Productivity Commission yesterday was certainly less than flattering, talking about that too many of the locations were listed for political reasons, that there also needs to be these amendments suggested before Round 3 goes up, what you’ve heard this morning from the Senator and what you’ve heard from me, explaining about for instance, Clare, is the example that we’re using here. Should areas like that, that whilst they are for the private telcos a commercial challenge, should there be under community service obligations some criteria so that these communities get priority?

JONES: Absolutely. And indeed that’s what the whole report that was released yesterday was going to. It was saying, there’s market failure. If there was a buck to be made by the mobile phone companies they would have had a tower there. So clearly, there is a market failure and that’s why the government needs to intervene to support a community where the market isn’t working. We think we need to rethink the Universal Service Obligation, we need to rethink the way that programs such as the mobile phone black spot program is operating in these remote areas…

INTERVIEWER: Do we need to be careful. Sorry to interrupt Mr Jones, we are running short of time here. Do we need to be careful when we are talking about balancing the commercial priorities of private operators versus the use of taxpayer money to direct funds. I put it to the Senator that if they’re using taxpayer money surely they can direct where that money is going, where those telcos operate, do we need to be careful about how we do that because it’s private business that we’re talking about here?

JONES: Yes, it’s private businesses who are getting a benefit from the public. They make money. When we build a mobile phone black spot tower they then get customers in that area that are able to use that service. And it is absolutely within the gift, in fact it’s the responsibility of the government to ensure that we’re deriving a public benefit from these programs. Like I said, if there was a buck to be made, the mobile phone companies would have built a tower there in the first place. They haven’t because of market failure. That’s why it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that we can have those facilities built for public safety and particularly in emergency services circumstances. You’ve mentioned the Clare Public School which is in your area of listenership, I can mention two or three other areas. High bushfire zones. For example in Victoria, areas affected by the Black Saturday, down in South Australia, areas affected by the Pinery fires. In a similar situation as your listeners where they bid for black spots and never received them, they’re asking why?

INTERVIEWER: Mr Jones my last question for you goes to a point that the Minister raised, that the community would be very well aware, we’re hearing a lot of concern coming from the Opposition, particularly after yesterday’s Productivity Commission report, but the reality is that for six years, your government had a chance to do something. Mobile black spots are nothing new, they’ve been around since we’ve had mobile phones, why didn’t the ALP in government fix this?

JONES: I’m glad you asked me the question. It enables me to explain what we were doing …

INTERVIEWER: You need to do it in 90 seconds Mr Jones …

JONES: Our priority was to ensure that that if we’re going to spend millions and in fact, billions of dollars on communications infrastructure, that we would get the best bang for the buck. You would recall we were rolling out the National Broadband Network. All of the advice to us at the time was saying that when we’re putting in wireless NBN towers, we can multi-purpose them so that we can not only strap in NBN relay equipment on those towers, we can also be using them to fix mobile phone black spots in those areas. So that was our idea.

INTERVIEWER: Just as an example, just to give a bit of context, would a community like Clare have been served under the previous ALP government’s plan?

JONES: Well we can absolutely say that if we were putting in an NBN wireless tower in that area, we would have insisted that it was designed in a way that also enabled you to put a mobile phone black spot dish attached to that very same tower.

INTERVIEWER: Mr Jones, I appreciate your time this morning. Thank you so much.