Australian government opens applications for mobile blackspots

Australian telcos will need to hand over confidential network expansion plans to the government in order to be eligible for mobile network blackspot funding.

Applications are now open for the Australian government's funding project aimed at reducing the number of mobile blackspots in Australia.

The government will offer up to AU$100 million in funding to build between 250 and 300 mobile base stations in cooperation with the mobile telecommunications industry.

Earlier this year, the government opened up requests from the public for key blackspot locations, and said there were over 10,000 requests made for around 6,000 locations across the country.

On Monday, the government announced that the "formal competitive selection process" was now open to determine the location of the new base stations across Australia, and proposals must be lodged by March 2015.

Applicants to the proposal must be a supplier of mobile telecommunications services and hold an apparatus or spectrum licence. The location of choice must be one on the database released by the government, excluding "urban centres" with a population of more than 100,000.

The telcos must hand over to the government their network expansion plans for the next two financial years to ensure that the proposed locations of mobile towers for government funding aren't already part of those expansion plans, and must certify that those locations were never included in expansion plans for the next two financial years.

The mobile companies must also hand over information to the government on the locations and costs for mobile coverage improvements for the three preceding financial years.

"The department will monitor and reconcile current mobile coverage expansion plans of MNOs [mobile network operators] with the actual build in any future Commonwealth program to expand mobile coverage," the guideline for the applications states.

"The government will have regard to the extent to which the actual build of an MNO correlates with the network expansion plans provided to the department by that MNO under the program."

For the telcos applying, they will also be expected to "make a substantial co-contribution" to the funding of the base station, and the Department of Communications is also expecting state, territory, and local governments to also make up some of the funding.

The new base stations must at least provide 3G HSPA+ coverage to the areas, and the government has left open the option of using microcells and picocells in some areas.

The agreement for the base stations must provide a minimum of 10 years of coverage, and the new base stations must be in locations where two or more MNOs are willing to collocate.

Access must be given to the rival telcos, meaning a tower built by Telstra would also allow Optus and Vodafone to expand their network coverage in that location.

Members of parliament in electorates without a major urban centre of over 100,000 people will be invited to nominate three priority locations in their electorates for funding for the program.

NBN Co's fixed-wireless network may also be utilised as part of the program. The guidelines state that locations where NBN Co is building a fixed-wireless base station could be used to improve mobile coverage. NBN Co may provide backhaul on a commercial basis.

The applications are two months behind schedule, but Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull indicated on Monday that funding would be allocated at the expected time.

"We aim to announce the locations of the base stations to be funded during the first half of 2015 -- and we expect the first base stations under the program will begin to roll out in the second half of 2015," Turnbull said.

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