The Federal Opposition has pilloried the Albanese government after uncovering a buried reference in the Budget suggesting the long-running Mobile Black Spots Program (MBSP) will conclude as of mid 2028 – but is it really the secret betrayal that the Coalition claims?

First floated in 2013 and implemented in 2014, the MBSP was intended to focus government funding on lingering mobile coverage blackspots – and over the course of seven funding rounds to date, the government says it has delivered over $1 billion in investment and delivered over 1,400 new mobile base stations.

Yet with its funding necessarily prioritising one region over another, the program has been politically contentious – often in contradictory ways, with MBSP funding savaged in the Coalition’s 2016-17 and 2018-19 Budgets and that government even previously planning to end the program as of 30 June 2018.

The previous government also treated the MBSP as a slush fund, with its 2020-21 Budget also redirecting $10 million from the program to focus on improving telecommunications resilience during natural disasters – which makes it ironic that backbencher Dan Tehan last year complained that Labor had failed to fund towers in his electorate and David Coleman, the Shadow Minister for Communications, lobbying the Australian National Audit Office to review MBSP governance amidst concerns of bias around the program’s Round 6 allocations.

The newly delivered Budget 2024-25 drew Coleman’s wrath again, with the Opposition’s communications spokesperson seizing on a reference to “the conclusion of the Mobile Black Spot Program” in fiscal 2027-28 as proof that the government had “abandoned regional Australia” by axing the program – and the umbrella Regional Connectivity Program (RCP) – seemingly on the sly.

Overall funding for communications programs – of which the MBSP has long been a significant part – is bundled into the Transport and Communication function of this year’s Budget, and wrapped into the ‘other transport and communication’ category in a way that has the effect of minimising the magnitude of the cuts to communication programs.

Expenditure on ‘other transport and communication’ is expected to decline from $360m in fiscal 2024-25 to $286m in 2027-28, the papers say, with communication expenses “estimated to decrease… primarily reflecting the funding for the Better Connectivity Plan for Regional and Rural Australia, and the conclusion of the Mobile Black Spot Program.”

MP Rowan Ramsey, for one, took this as proof that the government had secretly engineered “a huge blow for the regions” and warned that the looming shutdown of Telstra’s 3G network – which was recently deferred until the end of August – would likely create “new gaps in the network” and that there would “likely” be just one more round of MBSP allocations “and that will be it.”

Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland, Ramsey said, “should have the courage to look regional Australia in the eye and explain why her Government is abolishing the MBSP while failing to provide long-term funding for other mobile connectivity programs that so many Australians rely on, instead of just quietly burying the bad news deep in the budget.”

New news or old news?

Yet it’s not the first time the government has talked about changing the management of regional blackspot subsidies: in its October 2022 mid-year Budget just months after taking office, the government outlined a $1.1 billion Better Connectivity Plan (BCP) for Regional and Rural Australia – which included $200 million for two more rounds of the RCP and $20 million to conduct an independent audit of mobile coverage that would, the government said at the time, “better identify black spots and guide investment priorities.”

Making good on its election promise to improve black spots along transport corridors, the Albanese Government recently announced a three-year National Audit of Mobile Coverage (NAMC) of 3G, 4G, and 5G mobile coverage along national roadways.

Those investments will be based on observed signal strength and coverage, rather than relying on the previously used – and potentially easy to manipulate – publicly reported Database of Reported Locations.

Indeed, the Better Connectivity Plan as described in the 2022 Budget was designed to run for five years – in other words, until the end of the 2027-28 Budget, which is the same timeframe referenced as the “conclusion” of the MBSP in the latest Budget papers.

So are Coleman’s complaints correct, or is he simply twisting the truth by implying that the government had not previously telegraphed the end of the program – when it had in fact announced over 18 months ago that the BCP would be a five-year program?

By that time, the results of the three-year audit will have been delivered – potentially providing an evidence-based framework that will, Rowland said when she announced the NAMC, “allow the government and industry to make better investment decisions that will actually make a difference for locals, motorists, and small businesses in areas of patchy coverage.”