Talking Mobile Black Spots with ABC's Nick Rheinberger

NICK RHEINBERGER, PRESENTER: It’s come in for some criticism not only from the Australian National Audit Office but from the Labor Party. Stephen Jones, the Member for Whitlam who is also Shadow Minister for Regional Communications, joins us now. Good morning.

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STEPHEN JONES MP, SHADOW MINISTER FOR REGIONAL COMMUNICATIONS: Good morning Nick, good to be with you.

RHEINBERGER:  What has the National Audit Office found?

JONES: It’s found a couple of significant problems with the programme. Look it is an important programme and we back it, I just want to make that clear. As you have said, anyone who travels up and down Macquarie Pass as I do regularly knows around about when you hit Yellow Rock and right up the way to Mount Murray there’s a number of black spots in the area that are subject to lots of accidents -

RHEINBERGER: Picton Road, around Wilton, drops out all the time –

JONES: Absolutely, it can be guaranteed to halt a conversation if you’re having one. Down throughout region of Jamberoo there are a number of black spots there as well as some of the urban areas where you would not expect them. It’s an important programme and about $220 million has been spent on it, not all wisely. The Audit Office has found that for example $28 million has been spent on base stations that gave no new coverage. 39 base stations were built in areas where companies were going to build anyway, that’s not what the programme should be about.

RHEINBERGER: How’s this supposed to work? It was my understanding that base stations were all built by the phone companies in response to demand, where does the government programme come into this?

JONES: The programme essentially is a response to market failure. If there are mobile phone towers in areas where the companies think they are going to make money believe me they will build them there. Because that means they are going to get subscribers who are using their service and spending their money.

RHEINBERGER: I know, but where is the Government spending its money?

JONES: So the Government is supposed to be providing subsidies to build towers in areas where the companies have not built them because it’s not commercial for them to be doing. Generally regional areas along highways, low population areas and areas because of the topography is where they just have not put them in. That’s the idea behind it. Now if the company was going to build it anyway, clearly it’s not market failure. What the audit report has found is that in at least 39 locations out of the 500 that were built the companies were going to build them there anyway so that is a waste of money. Another 89 were built and being built in areas that provide no new coverage.

RHEINBERGER: Okay, in an ideal world if you knew that there was a mobile black spot at, for instance, Macquarie Pass - how should we improve that coverage? What is a reasonable thing to do?

JONES: A reasonable thing to do would be for the Government to sit down with the mobile phone companies and say - well, we have got this amount of government money that we will use to assist, to leverage private sector and other government investment to build your tower here. Under this programme up to $500,000 is available to help subsidise the building of those towers, that’s how it should work. But they should be allocated on need and extending coverage, not duplicating what is already there.

RHEINBERGER: Alright, so what recommendation does the Audit Office come up with that the Government really needs to follow?

JONES: Principally, the number one criterion that I think just make sense in a programme designed to extend mobile phone coverage is that there is a requirement that says a base station won’t be built in an area unless it’s going to extend mobile phone coverage. You would think that is common sense but that’s not what’s happened in the first round of this programme. That’s their number one recommendation; ensuring that there are criteria so you can measure where to get bang for your buck. To enable the Audit Office to conduct a cost benefits analysis is another recommendation and also taking the politics out of it by -

RHEINBERGER: But where is the politics in it? I do not understand the advantage in doubling up and buying a new phone tower in an area that is already served.

JONES: Very good question, what the Audit Office has found is that over 80 per cent of the towers were built in Coalition electorates, in excess of that money was spent on promoting the programme in those areas. When you look at the failed rollout of the program well you’ve got to say it has not been done on a rational basis, it must have been done on a political basis.

RHEINBERGER: Alright, Stephen Jones good to talk to you.

JONES: Good to be with you.

RHEINBEGER: Stephen Jones the Member for Whitlam here at 97.3 ABC Illawarra. 

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