Mobile blackspot 'priority' locations announced

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.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

The Australian government has 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 last year, will exclusively target the list of identified priority locations.

This follows accusations from the Labor opposition party that the government had chosen primarily Coalition electorates for its previous blackspot locations, and a report from the audit office saying the Department of Communications had erred in its selection criteria and ability to evaluate impact and cost effectiveness.

"The government has committed AU$60 million to priority black spot locations, on top of the AU$160 million already committed under the first two funding rounds of the program," Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said in an announcement.

"Telecommunications providers will bid to deliver coverage to priority locations by nominating the amount of Commonwealth funding sought, their own proposed co-contribution, funding from state and local governments, and other sources. Bids will be assessed by the Department of Communications on a value-for-money basis."

Telcos will be required to make a "substantial" cash co-contribution, the guidelines say, and to seek the advice of and co-funding from state, territory, and local governments, as well as from third parties and local communities.

According to Shadow Regional Communications Minister Stephen Jones, however, the locations selected have "failed the fairness test" again.

"There is no clear or transparent process for determining these priority locations. Instead, the government is using round three to deliver on the Coalition's 2016 election commitments when critical locations in bushfire-prone areas are missing out," Jones argued.

"Priority should be given to funding mobile blackspots based on consultation with stakeholders such as state and local governments and emergency services experts, and in response to evidence-based criteria."

The priority locations identified in New South Wales are Baldersleigh, Bombala, Brooklyn/Dangar Island, Carwoola, Clyde Mountain, Copeton Dam, Crosslands Reserve, Delegate, Dirnaseer, East Lynne, Fig Tree Hill, Fullerton Cove, Gresford, Grose Vale, Kangaroo Valley, Killcare, Kingstown, Megalong Valley, Mount Seaview, Nammoona, Ramornie, Sussex Inlet/Wandandian/Bewong, Tathra, Tumut, Wantabadgery, Wendoree Park, Yellow Rock, and Yorklea.

In Queensland, the locations being targeted are Alva Beach, Beachmere, Beerwah, Belmont, Burbank, Cashmere, Cedar Creek, Clermont, Daintree/Cape Tribulation, Dawson Developmental Road, Dayboro, Donnybrook, Emu Park, Glass House Mountains, Highvale, Karana Downs, Koumala/Sarina Range, Meringandan, Moreton Island, Mount Crosby, Mount Ossa, Ningi, North Stradbroke Island, Pacific Haven, Palm Island, Poona, Rules Beach, Russell Island, Samford, Sandstone Point, Taroom, Toolakea, Undullah/Flagstone, Upper Ulam Road, Weipa, Wide Bay Highway, Wights Mountain, Wonga Beach, Yalboroo, and Yeppoon.

Victorian priority blackspot locations are Aireys Inlet, Anglesea, Beaconsfield Upper, Bellbrae, Birregurra, Chum Creek, Gembrook, Gunbower, Guys Hill, Hyland Highway, Kalorama, Katunga, Lake Tyers Beach, Mount Evelyn, Red Hill, and Shoreham.

In South Australia, the priority locations are listed as Ashbourne, Bute/Alford, Gosse/Stokes Bay, Kalangadoo, Kybybolite, and Robertstown; and in Tasmania, Beechford/Lefroy, Beechford/Lefroy, Devonport, Gunns Plains, Lachlan, Murdunna, Musselroe Bay, Wilmot, and Yolla were chosen.

Just seven locations in Western Australia are listed -- Bickley, Bullsbrook, Chidlow, Lake Clifton, Parkerville, Serpentine/Keysbrook, and Swan Valley -- while none in the Northern Territory or Australian Capital Territory have been identified under this round.

Submissions by telcos are due by December 20, with grant negotiations to take place between November and January and outcomes announced in January. A rollout of new mobile base stations to the priority locations is to be completed by December 31, 2018.

According to Fifield, over 312 new or augmented mobile base stations have been built across the nation under the first two rounds of the mobile blackspots program, with the three telcos to switch on all 765 base stations by the end of next year.

The first round of mobile blackspot funding was opened in December 2014, and the government announced the second round a year later.

Optus will be 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.

The three telcos have also been teeing off on the issue of collocation, however, with Vodafone telling ZDNet that it had been unable to collocate on more than 100 of Telstra's sites thanks to "significant" cost and technical barriers imposed by the incumbent.

In response, Telstra told ZDNet that Vodafone's complaints "are not based in fact", and that it is offering sufficient space on its towers at discounted pricing.

"We offered all mobile network operators the ability to put their equipment on our mobile blackspot towers at lower than normal collocation costs," Telstra told ZDNet in May.

"We are often incurring significant costs to collocate on our competitor's blackspot sites, but we are continuing to look into collocating on a large number of them as part of our commitment to continuing to improve communications in rural and regional Australia. This is in addition to the 577 locations we will build under the mobile blackspot program."

Telstra added that it is continuing to make progress in multiple applications from another carrier to collocate on Telstra's blackspot towers, and is "moving to make these happen, ensuring their requirements are built into the structural design of our towers".

State governments are also moving ahead on blackspot funding, with Optus last month announcing a AU$16 million co-funding deal with the Victorian government to build out 25 mobile towers throughout regional areas.

The new infrastructure will serve around 5,000 premises with mobile coverage, with all towers to be operational by the end of 2019.

According to the Victorian government, the Optus agreement was reached as a result of its state largely missing out on winning any sites in the third round of the federal government's mobile blackspots program.

In April, the Victorian government also announced an AU$18 million Regional Rail Connectivity Project through which it is aiming to improve mobile coverage for railway commuters on the Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Traralgon, and Seymour lines in partnership with Optus, Telstra, and Vodafone.

Under the rail project, the mobile carriers will build out around 35 new mobile towers along the train lines and install reception repeaters on trains, with completion due in 2018.

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