If you live in a rural or regional area, you may soon be getting better mobile reception thanks to a four-year, $220m Budget measure targeting underserved areas.

Outlined by Minister for Communications and the Arts Bridget McKenzie a fortnight ago and enshrined in this week’s Budget, the Stronger Regional Connectivity Package includes $160m to cover the cost of two more rounds of the government’s Mobile Black Spot Program (MBSP), plus $60m for a new Regional Connectivity Program (RCP) that will lock down service standards for rural and regional telecommunications users.

Covering the country

The MBSP has now received $380m in government funding to install 1,047 new base stations across the country.

Some 683 of those base stations have already been activated and a further 180 new base stations – 49 for Optus and 131 for Telstra – will be operational by 30 June 2020.

Yet even as the program progresses, the number of covered locations is still far short of the 6,000 locations that were originally nominated by the public as having inadequate mobile coverage.

It has also generated concern about changes to the social order in areas like Kalumburu, the northernmost settlement in Western Australia, and Maidenwell, in southern Queensland.

Both areas only received mobile service for the first time in the past few months, thanks to grants in earlier rounds of the MBSP.

Locals are already worrying about the effect that continuous connectivity – and continuous access to social media, video publishing and the like – will have in areas where pay phones have long been a core part of everyday life.

Service guarantees

Now that they have been funded in the new Budget, rounds 5 and 6 of the MPSB will progress to address the issues with rural and regional telecommunications services that were subject to recommendations in the government’s 2018 Regional Telecommunications Independent Committee Report.

Telecommunications didn’t even get a mention in treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s Budget night speech, but the commitment of funds reflects an ongoing effort to implement the recommendations of that review.

The new MBSP funding was announced contemporaneously with the release of the government’s response to the review, which the government said “makes a compelling case of the benefits of increased digital connectivity for the regions.”

The government’s ongoing investment represents a compromise for providing coverage in areas that are uneconomical for fixed coverage under the national broadband network (NBN) program.

With mobile entrenched as the alternative for voice and data communications in the most remote areas, the government is also moving to formalise its rural and regional infrastructure with the $60m RCP – which will tackle a range of service-related issues for rural and regional telecommunications users.

The RCP will include grants to improve mobile and broadband services in regional areas; provide online telecommunications advice to regional users; trial innovative solutions for providing voice services to remote Australia; and support the development of the Universal Service Guarantee (USG).

Touted as an NBN-age update to the Universal Service Obligation (USO) – a universal-service fund originally designed to ensure phone services were available anywhere in Australia – the USG leverages the NBN and related telecommunications services to guarantee both voice and broadband connectivity for all.

The program will, the response says, target areas of high economic, public safety or social value; those outside the NBN fixed line footprint that are predominantly serviced by the NBN Sky Muster satellite service; and where provision of better connectivity and increased data have a clear benefit to a local region.

“With the regional rollout of the NBN almost complete,” the government’s response notes, “future telecommunications investments will be targeted to complement the NBN… [the RCP] uses a place-based approach to target investment to provide economic opportunities and allow full participation in the digital economy for regional communities and businesses.”