If there is one constant issue that unites my rural constituents in Indi from corner to corner it’s poor telecommunications. At any moment dozens of us are searching for an elusive single bar of reception or dropping out of a Zoom meeting at exactly the wrong time and wondering, ‘Is this as good as it gets?’
The time for accepting bad internet as a necessary price of life in the country has long passed. Australians should be able to use their mobile phone or connect to the internet no matter where they are. It’s an essential service, as vital now as water, electricity or roads, and we deserve better than what we’re currently getting.
During the pandemic, the fractures in our fixed wireless and satellite connections have grown. Households in lockdown jostle for limited bandwidth with remote business meetings and remote learning taking place at once. EFTPOS has largely replaced cash, which means you don’t have business if you don’t have an internet connection. Some people need to walk their machine to a window to make a customer payment. Farmers’ markets often can’t operate because the internet is down.
I’ve been fighting for better service and coverage from the NBN ever since I became an MP. I’m a member of the Joint Standing Committee on the NBN, where I’m working hard to keep the NBN rollout in regions accountable and pushing for the expansion of telehealth into the regions—if we can get the telecommunications infrastructure. The reality is that many telehealth consultations have no videoconferencing; they just go by telephone because the bandwidth is not sufficient.
It’s a travesty that the failures of NBN connectivity and the gaping holes in our mobile phone coverage don’t get more airtime. It’s not a matter of downloading movies faster, although that’s good fun. It’s that without good internet we simply go backwards. We can’t run a business, we can’t attract manufacturing and we can’t bring in new investment. It’s holding regional communities back from reaching their potential as the engine room of our country.
Many rural communities have thrown their hands up in exasperation, believing that nothing will ever change, and that’s a reasonable position, given the history and their experience.
I’m happy to say though that, while exasperated, we haven’t given up in Indi. In Indi we’ve taken the task of improving telecommunications very much into our own hands. We really do try to come up with solutions.
The Indi Telecommunications Advisory Group, or ITAG, is a consultative committee that I chair. It is made up of local governments, regional stakeholders and representatives of Telstra, Optus and NBN Co. We develop community led responses to telecommunication challenges in the region. As far as I know it’s the only such forum in Australia.
Through this body we make sure that the telecommunication needs of our constituents aren’t consigned to the margins. Every couple of months we convene to share information on telecommunications upgrades and advocate for improved mobile phone reception. We collaborate, and we often get results.
It’s a model that’s paid off for us. Working together, we assess and nominate mobile black spot areas for funding under the federal government’s Mobile Black Spot Program. A stunning 51 towers have been federally funded since 2013—since Independents have represented the seat of Indi. That’s a full 21 per cent of all towers across 11 Victorian electorates. Since I took office in 2019, nine towers have been funded in rounds 5 and 5A, and that’s 39 per cent of the total allocation in Victoria.
Better mobile phone reception is coming as a result of this for people in the surrounding areas of Creightons Creek, Cudgewa, Harrietville, Mt Bruno, Taggerty, Burrowye, Frenchman Gap, Koetong and Tawonga. All of these places were nominated by our ITAG group in consultation, and they all received funding. This has made Indi one of the top electorates nationally to eliminate black spots, and it absolutely proves its value. I would encourage all members of this parliament to adopt a similar model and work together.
In the last few short years, we have seen other big strides connecting Indi. NBN Business Fibre Zones will come on line in Wodonga, Wangaratta and Benalla, bringing superfast internet speeds to these areas. Under the Strengthening Telecommunications Against Natural Disasters program, we’ve secured upgrades to 21 mobile phone towers in Indi as part of our bushfire recovery, and I helped secure $2.6 million for a 42-kilometre fibre-optic cable connecting Harrietville, Dinner Plain and Mount Hotham to higher-speed internet. I’ve made telecommunications a priority for my term in office, and it’s delivering results.
Last year, nine years after it began, the government declared that the NBN rollout was complete, but I’m sorry to say the job is not done yet. There is a lot more work to do. What my constituents live with and pay for bears no resemblance to the promise made to them a decade ago. So, when the government asks us what we actually think about this service, we don’t pass up the opportunity to have our say. ITAG did this in our recent submission to the Regional Telecommunications Review, and I wanted to draw out the experience of some of our councils and present them to the House.
‘Dissatisfied, disadvantaged and disconnected’—that’s how Strathbogie Shire and its residents feel right now about the NBN. Fibre is only available in two towns in Strathbogie, and then only to some. Most of its residents rely on fixed wireless and satellite. The patchy service affects small businesses—including farmers, who need internet for just about everything for a competitive, modern-day agricultural business, from ordering supplies to planting crops and accessing markets. The mobile phone system and NBN alike face congestion, slower speeds and dropouts. Strathbogie is characterised by its rugged terrain and rural location, and it has a staggering 50 mobile phone black spots where service is simply non-existent.
Indigo Shire is famous for being a historic tourism drawcard and for stunning topography that places it in a very high bushfire risk zone. These two factors coincide in the summer months, placing enormous pressure on the system. In peak visitation season, Beechworth’s population triples, and our EFTPOS and ATM facilities splutter and fail, meaning less cash in pockets, and our businesses—hungry to recoup lost revenue after 18 months of disruption—find this exasperating and frustrating.
In an emergency, there are real concerns about whether the system could actually hold. Mobile phone coverage is patchy, even in some parts of Beechworth, and the other two major roads reaching out of Beechworth have long periods, long stretches, of zero bars—just what you don’t need in a crisis. We really need to do better.
In Benalla, the council and community worked with local solar farm developers Neoen to put in a submission to the Mobile Black Spot Program for a tower in Goorambat. Neoen even put $100,000 on the table for the tower. However, the application was ultimately not supported by Telstra, as their mapping indicated that connectivity issues weren’t bad enough. Well, the lived experience of locals from Goorambat, through dozens of letters of support and signatures on petitions, would prove otherwise—understandable, from a nationwide perspective, but a major hurdle for this transformative renewable energy project and the community all around it.
In Wangaratta, Hybrid Ag is an agricultural business which supplies blended soil and nutrient products. They are located in an industrial estate seven kilometres from the CBD, where they’re on wireless broadband. However, the signal is so weak that Zoom drops out and they can’t send large files. They were told their only option was to install a $50,000 private fibre-optic network to the industrial estate that only their business can connect to. But the problem is: they can’t share the benefit or the costs of this significant new installation. Other businesses in that industrial estate are missing out too. We need to support business or private investment into connectivity, rather than solely relying on telcos or NBN Co to support rural services.
The Regional Co-Investment Fund is the latest step to improve satellite or fixed wireless NBN connections, including upgrading both to fibre-to-the-premises and supporting higher speeds. This $300 million fund operates on a co-investment model, where governments stump up funding, alongside NBN Co, where investment would be ‘subcommercial’.
However, smaller local councils on ITAG have sounded the alarm on this—that they are the most disadvantaged by this system. They have low ratepayer base limits, and their ability to co-fund this new infrastructure is severely limited.
My local mayors are absolutely red-hot furious about this. Why should their citizens need to chip in when their metro counterparts don’t? We can’t have small councils going backwards if they can’t afford to co-fund the digital infrastructure that tree changers, industry and businesses see as absolutely essential.
I greeted with cautious enthusiasm the member for Berowra’s recent private member’s bill which imposed a new universal obligation to ensure that mobile phone users can make a call or access the internet inside their home or workplace. But I do wonder why the backbenchers need to bring this to government. Government should be doing more.
Read the Indi Telecommunications Advisory Group’s submission to the 2021 Regional Telecommunications Review.