Mobile Black Spot program to prioritise areas with 'skin in the game'

Criteria are coverage, competition and co-contributions, says director of Mobile Black Spot program
Philip Smurthwaite is the director of the Mobile Black Spot program at the Department of Communications.

Philip Smurthwaite is the director of the Mobile Black Spot program at the Department of Communications.

The government’s $100 million Mobile Black Spot program will prioritise small communities and major transport routes for new mobile base stations in regional Australia, according to the director of the program.

It also helps if the area puts a little “skin in the game,” including cash or other assistance to build the base station, Philip Smurthwaite, manager of regional telecom policy in the Department of Communications, said at the national conference of the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN).

The Department plans to release guidelines and its formal request for applications next month, he said. Applications will be due in February next year, and the government plans to announce winning applications in April.

Smurthwaite said that 6000 black spots have been identified, but that it will be impossible for the $100 million program to address every single one of them. He predicted the program will produce 250 to 300 new base stations, with each tower able to cover between one and 16 of the identified black spots. “A number of those” will cover 10 or more locations, he said.

The Department of Communications has adopted a “merit-based” method for choosing locations, he said. He admitted that it is “tricky” to make a subjective decision on what poor coverage areas are most deserving of support.

“Every community I’ve been to has approached me and said, I have a very special case here,’” he said. The challenge is that 6000 people have made the same case.”

Smurthwaite said the government’s three main criteria are: “The amount of new coverage, the amount of competition that we can generate, and the amount of co-contributions that others are prepared put into it.”

The government will “remain focused on premises and coverage, but I do make the point that councils and state governments that are serious about improving mobile coverage in their area are coming forward in significant numbers to say, ‘We have skin in the game.’”

If state and local governments put forward money, it will be possible to address more black spots, said Smurthwaite.

The Victorian and Western Australian governments have already put forward large sums toward the initiative, he said. Victoria has a $40 million program, with some of the money for Wi-Fi on trains and the rest for mobile black spots.

WA has a $40 million black spots program, and while not all of the areas they have identified match up with the federal program, there are some areas of alignment, Smurthwaite said.

The addition of state funding won’t double the funding behind the $100 million program, but it will be “significant,” he said.

While competition is one criterion for the program, Smurthwaite said the government will not be able to mandate roaming on the winning telco’s network.

“We are interested in roaming, [but] it can’t be a mandatory part of the program… The carriers would not participate and that would sort of undermine the whole purpose of the program.”

Paul Fletcher, parliamentary secretary to the minister for communications, gave a similar explanation of the program in a speech yesterday at the ACCAN conference.

“The mobile black spot program will improve coverage of all major transport routes in small communities and in locations prone to experiencing natural disasters as well as addressing the mobile coverage problems,” the MP said.

“This $100 million investment is expected to attract additional funding from industry as well as state and in some cases local government, as well as leveraging the NBN fixed wireless rollout. As well as improving coverage the program also aims to stimulate competition in the regional mobile market.”

Drilling deeper into the competition element, Fletcher said, “The program guidelines for example are designed to facilitate the colocation of carriers and equipment on a tower as a means of facilitating increased competition.”

“In addition there is scope to use NBN Co's fixed wireless towers in many parts of the country and the country has been strongly encouraging NBN Co to look at that option.”

Adam Bender covers telco and enterprise tech issues for Computerworld and is the author of dystopian sci-fi novels We, The Watched and Divided We Fall. Follow him on Twitter: @WatchAdam

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