Community members, Russell Broadbent MP and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Communications (Malcolm Turnbull) Paul Fletcher MP, look for mobile phone coverage at Dumbalk’s community centre. During the discussions on how to improve mobile phone reception at Dumbalk, community members vented their frustration on being left behind by the telecommunications bandwagon.
THE customary request to turn off or silence mobile phones during meetings was ignored in Dumbalk last week; not because the residents had no respect for the McMillan MP Russell Broadbent and his colleague who were doing the talking, or because they didn’t have phones, but because there was no threat of a mobile phone interruption.
In fact, the meeting was on that point – there’s no mobile reception in Dumbalk and surrounds and the community has had enough.
The residents say they are being put in danger – they can’t receive CFA mobile warnings, they cannot call Triple Zero in the case of an emergency; and the district is economically disadvantaged by a lack of coverage.
With a brand new 30 metre National Broadband Network (NBN) tower due to be commissioned “soon”, residents are disappointed they’ll likely get fast wireless broadband before they get mobile coverage.
The old kindergarten was packed on Wednesday as residents of Dumbalk and surrounds met with Mr Broadbent and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s right hand man Paul Fletcher (Federal Member for Bradfield and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Communications).
Residents heard that $100 million in funding is being made available to improve mobile coverage in rural and regional areas, but the money is still up to two years away.
Two years is a short time to wait for residents of Dumbalk and district who have been on the mobile phone campaign for over a decade.
The Federal Government’s Mobile Coverage Program has $80 million to improve mobile phone coverage along major transport routes, in small communities and in locations prone to natural disasters.
A further $20 million will be provided under another project ‘Mobile Black Spots’ to “address unique mobile coverage problems”.
No funding has been made available to negotiate using the NBN towers to boost coverage.
The fact Dumbalk could have wireless NBN before mobile phone coverage was a sore point for residents.
“We’re only 15km out from a major town and we’ve got no coverage at all,” a resident said.
“Could it get to the stage where contractors won’t come out to properties because there’s no coverage to call Triple Zero?” another asked.
“We’re being left behind economically because we’re not getting calls through for jobs,” said a hay contractor.
“Why can’t you just force NBN to put mobile infrastructure on their towers?” residents asked.
Mr Fletcher explained that as a private company, the government had no basis to make demands, but said the government could make it more enticing.
“We know that Telstra, Optus and Vodafone all have their own policies on where they will build their towers; for them it is a commercial decision based on a number of factors – population, competition, prices,” Mr Fletcher said.
“That is why we are putting up $100 million of public money to fill the spaces where carriers will not build towers to improve coverage.
“Where that money is invested is up to the feedback we receive and will be based on: areas prone to natural disasters; major transport routes; small communities; and, in some cases where there is a large seasonal fluctuation in population.”
Mr Fletcher was adamant the priorities were not political – that McMillan and other seats would not miss out because they are considered ‘safe’ Liberal seats.
However, Mr Fletcher said the $100 million available nationally meant there were no guarantees that Dumbalk or even South Gippsland and Bass Coast would receive funding to either build the towers from scratch at an estimated cost of $600,000 to $700,000 each, or to build on existing NBN towers at half that price.
However, no funding has been allocated to even negotiate with NBN to jointly use the towers that are and are still being erected around the country.
McMillan MP Russell Broadbent, who took Mr Fletcher on a tour of McMillan and led the community discussion groups, vowed he would push for funding to be made available outside the $100 million to progress the NBN tower options.
The discussion paper on the program is available at www.communications.gov.au and follow the mobile phone links.
Submissions to increase mobile phone coverage in your area are open until May/June (technical submissions close February 28).
“We’re gathering as much feedback as we can about the priority areas and we would hope that the selection process could begin before the end of this year and our hope is that the first base stations will start to be rolled out under this program towards the end of 2015,” Mr Fletcher said.
Mr Fletcher was warned at the meeting that the Dumbalk community will be making strong submissions for the program funding, and was even driven out to a farm to see for himself the poor reception.
The fact no-one but Russell Broadbent’s phone went off during the meeting was also evidence of the dire mobile phone coverage in the town.