Telstra activates first three mobile blackspot cell towers

Telstra has switched on services in the first three communities to receive coverage under the government's mobile blackspot program.

Telstra has announced the switch-on of the first three cell towers as part of the Australian government's mobile blackspot program, with Cheepie and Marlborough in Queensland, and Deniliquin in New South Wales becoming the first areas to receive coverage.

Telstra also aims to switch on a number of other sites before Christmas, with 429 communities in total to receive 3G and 4G Telstra coverage via the program.

According to Telstra group MD of Networks, Mike Wright, the activation of the cell towers continues Telstra's bid to bring mobile coverage to remote areas.

"This is a significant step in Telstra's efforts to deliver improved mobile coverage to regional communities across Australia," Wright said.

"Expanding coverage to these blackspots ensures local communities can keep in contact with family and friends and run their businesses more effectively, whether it's chatting on the phone or using a range of online services over our fast mobile internet network."

Telstra is also looking to install 250 small cells in yet-to-be-determined locations across Australia in order to provide small towns with 4G services where Telstra infrastructure is available.

"It builds upon significant investment already undertaken by Telstra to expand and upgrade our wireless networks for the long term," Wright said.

"In total, over three years to June 2017, we expect to have invested more than AU$5 billion into Telstra's mobile network."

The first round of mobile blackspot funding was opened in December last year, with Telstra and Vodafone securing AU$185 million in government funding to build or upgrade 499 mobile towers across Australia.

Telstra itself has invested AU$165 million into the program.

Earlier this month, the government announced a second round of the program, providing another AU$60 million to bring better telecommunications coverage to regional areas.

The funding will be used by telcos to build mobile base stations in rural Australia, with locations to be nominated by December 31.

"The Commonwealth government has committed AU$60 million to provide new or upgraded mobile coverage to black spots in regional and remote Australia under Round 2 of the mobile blackspot program, and we're calling on members of the public to nominate black spots in their local area by 31 December," Minister for Communications Mitch Fifield said.

"This new funding is on top of the AU$100 million committed to Round 1 of the program, which leveraged co-contributions from mobile operators, state and local governments, and third parties for a total funding envelope of AU$385 million."

Sites nominated by the public will be entered into a national database. The 3,000 of the 6,000 locations that were unsuccessful during Round 1 of the program will also be added to the database.

Telcos can then choose from this list of localities during the "competitive selection process" in early 2016, outlining where they would build or upgrade a base station. These sites will then be subject to a ranking system in accordance with the guidelines supplied by the government.

The government will announce the successful locations at the end of next year.

The full rollout is expected to be completed within three years.

The news that the mobile blackspot program is gaining speed follows the Australian government tabling its report on regional telecommunications services in Parliament in October, finding that safeguards must be put in place to ensure remote areas are given equal access to mobile phone and National Broadband Network (NBN) services.

"People living in regional Australia rely heavily on telecommunications in their everyday lives, and the government will give careful consideration to the committee's recommendations before providing a response," Fifield said at the time.

Vodafone CEO Inaki Berroeta recently detailed Vodafone's involvement in the mobile blackspot program, saying it is vital to bring coverage to all parts of Australia.

"The mobile blackspot program is a great step forward towards giving customers in regional areas better coverage, and often, for the first time, the opportunity to choose a mobile provider. Choice results in better and lower prices, which means improved productivity for farmers and businesses," he said in October.

"On the mobile blackspot program ... we've been increasing our network in New South Wales, Tasmania, Queensland, Western Australia, and also Victoria. I think one of the biggest areas of potential of this program is the requirement for winning bidders to look at co-investing in mobile towers and shared transmission links with other mobile network operators. Sharing of infrastructure simply makes sense. It helps operators to save costs, and helps consumers by extending coverage and competition."

Berroeta warned that without competition in regional areas, Australia will be left behind by the global digital revolution.

"Mobile technology has a big part to play in building a productive and truly national digital economy. By optimising the use of next-generation mobility, we can leverage Australia's strengths in industries such as agriculture, education, transport, healthcare, and tourism," Berroeta said.

"The cost of lack of competition in the telco market across Australia is AU$3.1 billion each year. That's AU$3.1 billion which could be driving growth, but instead, it's threatening the government's worthy aspirations of a world-leading digital economy."

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