Australia's Labor party is calling for a "fresh approach" to the mobile blackspots program, saying the federal government must use its Budget next week to take a step away from using the program to "meet political priorities rather than community needs".
"The blatant politicisation of the program has led many states to abandon the program and resulting in an underspend of AU$14 million for that rounds," Shadow Regional Communications Minister Stephen Jones said on Friday.
"The Coalition allocated AU$60 million towards its priority locations round but only spent AU$45.6 million to address 102 mobile blackspots. An opportunity to fund an additional 20 mobile blackspots with this AU$14 million underspend was missed because of the exclusive focus on electoral politics."
Pointing to what he labelled a "scathing" report from the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) on the mobile blackspots program as well as Victoria's abandonment of the program and criticisms by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), Jones said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's government "must use this Tuesday's Budget to reform the mobile blackspots program".
"The AU$220 million program has been plagued by delays, political interference, and dubious decision making, which has attracted fierce criticism from independent agencies," Jones said.
"On Budget night, the minister must adopt the recommendations which rectify the problems identified by the ANAO and ACCC, and ensure future rounds of the program meet community priorities."
The government had last month revealed which telcos will be taking a slice of the AU$60 million funding under round three of the mobile blackspots program, with Telstra being designated 89 locations across the nation, Optus 12, and Vodafone Australia one.
The federal government had in November opened the third round of its mobile blackspots program for tender, with 106 "priority" locations named as possibilities for the AU$60 million in funding to extend coverage.
The third round, announced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the lead-up to the 2016 federal election in May 2016, exclusively targeted a list of identified priority locations.
The announcement followed accusations from Labor that the government had chosen primarily Coalition electorates for its previous blackspot locations, and ANAO's report saying the Department of Communications had erred in its selection criteria and ability to evaluate impact and cost effectiveness.
Optus is building 114 new mobile sites under round two of the Australian government's mobile blackspots program while Telstra is responsible for 148, down from the 429 it was allocated under round one.
Vodafone Australia will build out just four mobile base stations under round two after being responsible for 70 under round one.
Telstra has received government funding to build out almost 90 macro and small cell sites across Australia, while Optus has been allocated 12 sites and Vodafone just one.
The Victorian government has pulled its AU$11 million commitment to the federal government's mobile blackspots program, opting instead to build its own new mobile towers across regional parts of the state.
The Australian government has identified 106 mobile blackspot locations across all states for AU$60 million in funding under its 'priority' round, though the Opposition has again argued that the selection was politically driven.
The state's Minister for Innovation and the Digital Economy said the Commonwealth's blackspot program chooses tower locations based on political interests rather than merit.
Contrary to arguments made by Vodafone, Telstra has said it is providing space for collocating carriers on its mobile blackspot base stations at a discounted price.
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