The Australian government has extended the nomination timeframe for Round 2 of its mobile blackspot program, giving communities until January 15 to put forward their region to receive new or upgraded base stations for greater mobile coverage.
The government had earlier this month announced the second round of its mobile blackspot program, providing AU$60 million to bring better telecommunications coverage to regional areas.
The funding will be used by telcos to build mobile base stations in rural Australia, with locations originally to be nominated by December 31. The nominations have now been extended to mid January in 2016.
"The Commonwealth government has committed AU$60 million to provide new or upgraded mobile coverage to black spots in regional and remote Australia under Round 2 of the mobile blackspot program, and we're calling on members of the public to nominate black spots in their local area by 31 December," Minister for Communications Mitch Fifield said.
"This new funding is on top of the AU$100 million committed to Round 1 of the program, which leveraged co-contributions from mobile operators, state and local governments, and third parties for a total funding envelope of AU$385 million."
Sites nominated by the public will be entered into a national database. The 3,000 of the 6,000 locations that were unsuccessful during Round 1 of the program will also be added to the database.
Telcos can then choose from this list of localities during the "competitive selection process" in early 2016, outlining where they would build or upgrade a base station. These sites will then be subject to a ranking system in accordance with the guidelines supplied by the government.
The government will announce the successful locations at the end of next year.
The first round of mobile blackspot funding was opened in December last year, with Telstra and Vodafone securing AU$185 million in government funding to build or upgrade 499 mobile towers across Australia.
Telstra brought coverage first to Cheepie and Marlborough in Queensland, and Deniliquin in NSW, aiming to switch on a number of other sites before Christmas.
"This is a significant step in Telstra's efforts to deliver improved mobile coverage to regional communities across Australia," Telstra group MD of Networks Mike Wright said.
"Expanding coverage to these blackspots ensures local communities can keep in contact with family and friends and run their businesses more effectively, whether it's chatting on the phone or using a range of online services over our fast mobile internet network."
Telstra is also looking to install 250 small cells in yet-to-be-determined locations across Australia in order to provide small towns with 4G services where Telstra infrastructure is available.
"It builds upon significant investment already undertaken by Telstra to expand and upgrade our wireless networks for the long term," Wright said.
"In total, over three years to June 2017, we expect to have invested more than AU$5 billion into Telstra's mobile network."
Telstra itself has invested AU$165 million into the mobile blackspot program.
Vodafone, meanwhile, switched on its first cell tower at White Rock Wind Farm near Glen Innes, in the New England region of NSW.
According to Vodafone CEO Inaki Berroeta, the cell tower activated on Monday will provide seven areas identified as mobile blackspots with coverage.
"This tower will deliver reliable coverage and choice of provider for the first time for many locals, and that's a great outcome," Berroeta said.
Vodafone is set to bring mobile coverage to another 17 sites in the New England region as part of the program, with the region to gain 28 new and upgraded towers in total.
Wind turbine manufacturer Goldwind, which is providing the turbines for the wind farm in Glen Innes, also contributed to funding for the cell tower, with businesses in New England assisting in the tower's construction.
"The mobile tower is a great example of the White Rock Wind Farm providing benefits to the local community. Local businesses were involved in the construction of the mobile tower, and will continue to benefit once the wind farm construction stage commences," Goldwind managing director John Titchen said.
"The tower will provide mobile phone coverage for construction workers, meaning a safer worksite and enabling the day-to-day functioning of the site."
Inverell Shire Council also contributed AU$20,000 in funding.
"In just four months, we've been able to light up a mobile blackspot site. This is a great example of how a collaborative approach to mobile coverage can make a real difference to local communities and deliver the choice and opportunities they deserve," Berroeta said.
"For too long, many regional Australians, including those in the New England area, have missed out on the benefits of coverage and choice of provider that customers living in cities have long enjoyed."
In total, Telstra will build out 429 cell towers, while Vodafone builds out 70, with the full rollout to be completed within three years.
The second blackspot round follows the federal government tabling its report on regional telecommunications services in Parliament in October, finding that safeguards must be put in place to ensure remote areas are given equal access to mobile phone and National Broadband Network (NBN) services.
"People living in regional Australia rely heavily on telecommunications in their everyday lives, and the government will give careful consideration to the committee's recommendations before providing a response," Fifield said at the time.
Berroeta recently detailed Vodafone's involvement in the mobile blackspot program, saying it is vital to bring coverage to all parts of Australia.
"The mobile blackspot program is a great step forward towards giving customers in regional areas better coverage, and often, for the first time, the opportunity to choose a mobile provider. Choice results in better and lower prices, which means improved productivity for farmers and businesses," he said in October.
"On the mobile blackspot program ... we've been increasing our network in New South Wales, Tasmania, Queensland, Western Australia, and also Victoria. I think one of the biggest areas of potential of this program is the requirement for winning bidders to look at co-investing in mobile towers and shared transmission links with other mobile network operators. Sharing of infrastructure simply makes sense. It helps operators to save costs, and helps consumers by extending coverage and competition."
Berroeta warned that without competition in regional areas, Australia will be left behind by the global digital revolution.
"Mobile technology has a big part to play in building a productive and truly national digital economy. By optimising the use of next-generation mobility, we can leverage Australia's strengths in industries such as agriculture, education, transport, healthcare, and tourism," Berroeta said.
"The cost of lack of competition in the telco market across Australia is AU$3.1 billion each year. That's AU$3.1 billion which could be driving growth, but instead, it's threatening the government's worthy aspirations of a world-leading digital economy."
Vodafone said on Monday that it is investing AU$4.5 million in the New England area to increase mobile coverage under the mobile blackspot program.
Nominations for the second round of the program can be made through the nomination form.