Poor mobile coverage across the nation is the biggest telecommunications concern for regional Australians, an independent review has found.
The government released the 2011-12 Regional Telecommunications Independent Committee Review yesterday.
It said that the adequacy of mobile voice and broadband services was raised in all 20 regional locations, and in around two thirds of the 222 submissions.
"The committee accepts that there are commercial limits to expanding mobile-network coverage, but it is equally clear there is strong, unmet demand in regional Australia for an expansion of the mobile-coverage footprint," the report said.
Among the report's 34 recommendations is a jointly funded program by the commonwealth and states or territory governments to expand mobile coverage in regional Australia.
Fixed-line phone service remains a key focus, as it is the only reliable service for many people in regional Australia, review chair Rosemary Sinclair said.
Sinclair said that regional consumers need assurance that their interests will be protected as the telecommunications sector undergoes significant change.
The roll-out of the National Broadband Network (NBN) in regional Australia and the commitment to uniform national wholesale pricing are considered as being significant steps in providing reliable and affordable high-speed broadband services to the regions, Sinclair said.
Despite this, Shadow Minister for Regional Communications Luke Hartsuyker used the results of the report to say that the government shouldn't be spending so much money on the NBN, as the regional Australians canvassed in the report are plainly more worried about mobile reception than about broadband speeds.
"What this review confirms is the Gillard government has got its priorities wrong on regional telecommunications, and the minister is completely out of touch with regional Australia," Hartsuyker said. "The review committee makes it very clear that mobile coverage is the number-one concern in regional Australia."
The focus on mobile questions the investment in the NBN, he said.
"For a fraction of the cost of the NBN, the government could deliver high-speed broadband to all Australians, plus upgraded mobile services," he said.
As part of its roll-out, the NBN is delivering broadband services to small regional areas by fixed-wireless long-term evolution (LTE) technology. This will require NBN Co to build a number of new mobile towers; however, the company has already run into trouble, with the Golden Plains Shire Council in Ballarat rejecting one tower. The council has committed to working with NBN Co to find a more suitable location for the tower, though.
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, meanwhile, has seized on the report, pointing out that the review found that there is a "genuine desire across regional Australia" for the broadband services that the NBN will provide; that the government's commitment to uniform wholesale prices on the NBN is "essential"; and that better broadband would drive regional economic development.
"This independent review has confirmed that people living in regional, rural and remote Australia are backing the Gillard government's investment in the NBN, and our decision to prioritise the roll-out in regional areas," he said.