Discussions underway about Australia's AU$60m Regional Connectivity project

The Department of Communications is seeking input from the telecommunications industry, all levels of government, and other interested stakeholders on the grant element of the program.

The Department of Communications has released a discussion paper on its AU$60 million Regional Connectivity project aimed at improving digital connectivity for people in rural and regional Australia.

"Fast and reliable telecommunications are vital for people living in the bush as they need the connections to go about almost every aspect of their lives," Minister for Regional Services Mark Coulton said.

As part of seeking input from the telecommunications industry, all levels of government, and other interested stakeholders, the department has focused the discussion paper on the AU$53 million competitive grants element of the program, noting that other measures within the program -- a digital technology hub, alternate voice service trials in remote areas, and further development of the Universal Service Guarantee -- will be delivered through "other procurement processes".

The discussion paper [PDF] proposes that grant funding can be used by licensed telecommunication carriers for projects that may involve any combination of mobile/broadband and transmission upgrades; fixed wireless and fixed line broadband projects; and in some circumstances upgrades to the NBN access technology in the area.

Extending Wi-Fi services in remote Indigenous communities, specifically in areas of high economic, social, and public safety significance that are predominantly serviced by the NBN Sky Muster satellite service, could also be supported, the discussion paper said.

At the same time, it outlined that grant applicants cannot seek funding for proposed solutions where they have already planned to invest commercially, and nor can they use grant funding to cover retrospective costs, costs incurred in the preparation of grant application, or operating expenditure for the funded solutions.

When it comes to determining grant amounts, the discussion paper outlines that all eligible applications be grouped into two categories -- projects seeking less than AU$2 million and projects seeking more than AU$2 million in funding -- to ensure that smaller projects are given due consideration during the assessment process.

To be considered, all proposed solutions must not be available in the area currently or in the foreseeable future, and must meet a clear community or business need, according to the discussion paper.

The discussion paper also noted that all funded solutions need to provide retail services for a minimum of 10 years after the asset is completed and operational.

The Regional Connectivity program is a component of the government's AU$220 million Stronger Regional Digital Connectivity Package that was announced in the lead up to the federal budget in May.

The announcement was in response to the Regional Telecommunications Review which was published last December, and designed to complement the National Broadband Network, the mobile blackspot program, and the telecommunications industry's commercial investment plans.

"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 said in its response [PDF].

Feedback that will be used to inform the design and development of the program is being accepted until 9 September 2019. 

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