Canberra kicks in AU$220m to regional telco program

The government will fund two more mobile blackspots rounds with AU$160 million, and a Regional Connectivity Program with AU$60 million.

Ahead of next month's federal Budget, the Australian government has announced that it will invest AU$220 million to improve regional telecommunications.

Of this package, AU$160 million will go towards funding two more rounds of the mobile blackspots program; and AU$60 million to develop a Regional Connectivity Program. The government will also found a "digital tech hub to improve digital literacy".

The announcement came in response to the Regional Telecommunications Review which was published in December.

"A large-scale, multi-year Stronger Regional Digital Connectivity Package [will] improve broadband and mobile services in areas of high economic, social, and public safety significance," the government said in its response [PDF].

"The new AU$60 million Regional Connectivity Program will take a place-based approach to targeting investment, based on local priorities ... target areas of high economic, public safety or social value; outside the NBN fixed-line footprint and are predominantly serviced by the Sky Muster satellite service; and where the provision of better connectivity and increased data have a clear benefit to a local region."

The government added that it is working with the National Broadband Network (NBN) company on the review's NBN-specific recommendations, including working together on developing criteria for how and where future upgrades could be implemented once the rollout is complete.

NBN has also committed to improving the transparency of network performance across both satellite and fixed-wireless, and working with state governments to look into additional funding sources to upgrade services for premises on fixed-wireless or satellite.

"NBN Co will shortly begin publishing satellite network capacities metrics as part of its existing monthly dashboard report. These metrics demonstrate satellite network capacities," the government response said.

"NBN Co will also report on the number of end-user impacting network incidents, outside of planned maintenance windows, which are recorded and managed in its operating systems. In addition to system-wide issues there may be local factors impacting the performance in individual services.

"NBN Co has identified a number of services where poor radio frequency strength between the earth station and the premises could be leading to poor performance."

NBN will additionally report back by the end of 2019 on whether data limits can be increased in areas where satellite spot beams are underutilised.

Agreeing with the review's suggestion that alternate solutions for voice services in regional areas be tested, the government said it will call for expressions of interest in the second quarter of 2019 for "new and innovative solutions".

"The review makes it absolutely clear that access to 21st century communications is more important than ever before, particularly for Australians living in regional and remote areas," Regional Services Minister Bridget McKenzie said.

"With the growth in demand for data and the movement of essential government and industry services online, the timing for this new investment is now."

The government acknowledged the recommendation that there be greater focus on landline phone reliability in regional areas, pointing to Telstra's own regional upgrade announced last week, as well as the government's audit into Telstra's Copper Continuity Obligation compliance and Customer Service Guarantee performance under the Universal Service Obligation (USO).

Telstra's program of work to upgrade and maintain its services in regional Australia will see it repair or replace 1,000 cable joints and some cabling on the worst-performing cables; migrate 350 customers off its old high-capacity radio concentrator (HCRC) network onto NextG Wireless Local Loop (NGWL) telephone services; and replace around 200 batteries in exchanges and roadside cabinets where mains power failures occur frequently.

"We are also improving stock levels of equipment so our field teams can respond faster when something goes wrong," Telstra CEO Andy Penn added.

Lastly, the government's new digital tech hub will improve education and training in regional areas across technology.

"The telecommunications market place and technology are changing and have become much more complicated. There is confusion and concerns among regional consumers, much of which flows from a lack of knowledge about the responsibilities of each player in the supply chain and the most appropriate solutions to meet their needs and keep their services operating," it said.

"The government will further consider the need for 'on the ground' technical advisers, as per recommendation 10b, after the technology hub has been established and is operational."

The government added that it is already working with agricultural sectors on Internet of Things (IoT) education, and will develop an Indigenous Digital Inclusion Plan.

The government had announced its three-yearly review of regional telecommunications services back in April 2018, and took into account submissions from industry and stakeholders.

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