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08 November 2023
Mobile phone connectivity will improve for regional and rural Australians during emergencies – and its advocacy began in the Grampians.
The Federal Government will work with industry to scope an emergency mobile roaming capability to keep people connected during natural disasters, following a report from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, ACCC.
The report, titled ‘Regional Mobile Infrastructure Inquiry’, found it was technically feasible, but further work was required to develop the capability for people to connect to any available mobile network during natural disasters and other emergencies.
Regional Development Australia, RDA, Grampians chair Stuart Benjamin and his committee have called for this system to address the ‘ridiculous’ lack of mobile phone connectivity in regional and rural areas – including the Grampians – for about seven years.
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He said Australia was a large and wealthy country and its residents should have the capacity to roam onto any available network, particularly in emergencies.
“For many years, we’ve been told it’s not technically feasible, we can’t do it – even though they can do it in Asia and in America and even in New Zealand,” he said.
The calls eventually led to the ACCC inquiry and Mr Benjamin said the report had determined it was possible to not only phone 000 in an emergency, but rural Australians ‘deserved’ the capability to phone others and communicate warnings or welfare information; and to access emergency apps via mobile phone to receive warnings and updates.
“It won’t be ready by this fire season, but next fire season, it doesn’t matter who you’re with, you’ll be able to make a phone call – so we’re pretty proud of that,” he said.
Federal ministers have tasked the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts, DITRDCA, and the National Emergency Management Agency, NEMA, with progressing next steps, in collaboration with mobile carriers, and to report back to the government by March.
The report makes the case for a review of existing regulation that governs access to mobile towers and associated infrastructure in regional areas to deliver better outcomes for consumers.
It highlights that encouraging carriers to deploy mobile infrastructure in areas without a commercial incentive through current grant programs is a significant challenge, and industry collaboration through infrastructure sharing may be the key to coverage improvements in these areas.
It found that infrastructure sharing can reduce costs to deploy new mobile sites and the public benefits flowing from these grant programs would outweigh possible competition concerns.
Mr Benjamin and RDA Grampians are not a lone voice in advocacy for improved mobile phone connectivity in the Wimmera and Grampians.
Former Grampians Group officer David Grimble said the ACCC report findings were a positive step forward, but added connectivity remained vital for residents and visitors beyond emergency scenarios, including accessing accurate and timely weather warnings.
Mr Grimble, a decades-long CFA volunteer, was serving as Horsham Rural City mayor when his Brimpaen property was impacted by the 2014 Grampians Northern Complex fire. His civic service also involved pushes to address the lack of mobile phone coverage in the area, including deputations to the Federal Government.
His interview with The Weekly Advertiser was cut short due to poor mobile phone connectivity.
“You need to have all avenues to be able to fully and effectively communicate – particularly in long and protracted level-three incidents, like we’ve seen in 2014 and the Mt Lubra fire in the Grampians National Park in 2006, that run for multiple days and are long and complex,” he said.
“However, if the focus is on fire, it doesn’t capture those other significant needs that people have from time to time – whether someone’s car has broken down, with a young family on a hot day, or someone gets lost and needs assistance. It might not mean they are in a precarious situation.”
In his local area, there is a Telstra tower at Roses Gap and an Optus tower at Brimpaen, but unreliable mobile phone connectivity remains.
“There should be restrictions put in place that if providers construct a tower, they share those towers; that both Optus and Telstra use those towers,” Mr Grimble said.
“We all understand commercial advantage or disadvantage, but we just want our phone to ring and be able to pick it up and answer it.”
People can read the report via accc.gov.au/inquiries-and-consultations/regional-mobile-infrastructure-inquiry-2022-23
The entire November 8, 2023 edition of The Weekly Advertiser is available online. READ IT HERE!