The Coalition's policy to dedicate AU$100 million to improving mobile phone coverage in regional and rural Australia is a small start, according to Vodafone Australia CEO Bill Morrow, but could ignite further investment in mobile coverage by government and industry.
Earlier this month, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced AU$100 million in funding, to be at least matched by industry, to build between 200 and 250 new towers to improve mobile coverage in regional and rural Australia.
It comes as Vodafone has invested over AU$1 billion in overhauling its 3G network as the start of a push to win back the more than 1.5 million customers who have abandoned the telco since the peak of its network troubles back in 2010. In addition to overhauling its network, Vodafone is now also sharing infrastructure with Optus to expand its network footprint.
The company has previously called for the government to consider subsidising the construction of mobile towers in locations where it is uneconomic for a single carrier to do so, and Morrow told ZDNet last week that the Coalition's proposal was a good move.
"I'm really excited about it. The amount in itself is nothing, but the step forward is so significant," he said.
"If they want to see Australia prosper, they're going to have to do it in a way where whoever comes in to make sure they open it up to everyone else."
If Optus, Telstra, and Vodafone are all able to access the infrastructure, it will improve competition, and will encourage the telcos to invest in the infrastructure, he said.
"You get consumer choice, which has all the benefits with it, and you change the economic model to where, let's say, AU$100 million would be 1,000 sites, well if everyone is participating in that, you can justify far more than the AU$100 million than you could with a single carrier," Morrow said.
"The very fact that they're thinking about it this way, if we as an industry get it right, I think you'll see more government subsidy-type programs to help stimulate [the telcos] to cover more of Australia."
Morrow said that both sides of politics now understand the need to work with industry on improving mobile coverage. After the Coalition's announcement, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd indicated that he would have "more to say" on addressing mobile coverage blackspots, but no new policy from the Labor government has yet to be announced.
Morrow's predecessor Nigel Dews announced in 2011 that Vodafone would trial services on the National Broadband Network (NBN), and since then, the company has brought on a number of Vodafone's mobile customers living in NBN areas onto the service in a trial capacity. Vodafone still has yet to announce any plans to offer commercial NBN services, and Morrow admitted that he wouldn't get excited about the NBN trials until the rollout starts.
"I think our trials are going as expected, but I think the biggest constraint to me is we need to be in a high-volume area, and right now, we can see the delays, the complexity, and the political nature of it," he said.
Josh Taylor travelled to New Zealand as a guest of Vodafone Australia.