By Wendy Williamson
THE long-suffering residents of Dumbalk and other rural and regional areas plagued by poor or non-existent mobile phone coverage are hoping that change is at last on the way.
About 40 people packed into the Dumbalk Community Centre around midday last Wednesday to meet Paul Fletcher, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull. Mr Fletcher was visiting at the request of the federal member for McMillan, Russell Broadbent, to give people the opportunity to air their grievances.
He explained that the federal government would be committing $100 million to improve mobile phone coverage in rural and regional Australia. This includes $80 million under the Mobile Network Expansion Project to improve coverage along major transport routes, in small communities and in locations prone to experiencing natural disasters; and an additional $20 million under the Mobile Black Spots Project to address unique mobile coverage problems. (Sandy Point residents might be interested to hear that priority will also be given to areas with high seasonal fluctuations in the population.)
The government is hoping to create competition between the three major carriers – Telstra, Optus and Vodafone – and offer incentives to encourage them to provide mobile phone services even to areas regarded as commercially unviable i.e. rural areas of small population densities.
Ideally, the government would like to make use of existing communications facilities, such as NBN towers, as this would significantly reduce costs, but it cannot force NBN Co to share its facilities.
With a limited amount of money to go around, Mr Edwards said that he was keen that the allocation of funding for improved mobile coverage would reflect community priorities.
“You can help make a case for improvements by demonstrating the need in your area,” he advised, urging people to feed their submissions through Mr Broadbent’s office or send an email to [email protected].
People have until May or June this year, he said, to come up with their suggestions of priority areas – and why. From this the government will determine where to build (or adapt) towers and approach the carriers, asking them for proposals as to what they could build with the government money, based on the priority list. It is hoped that construction of the base stations will start to take place towards the end of 2015.
Mr Edwards is currently covering as much of rural Australia as he can to hear directly from consumers themselves where the problems lie. He said that Mr Broadbent was one of the first MPs to contact him on the issue.
“He has been on my case since the day this project was announced!”
“This is a powerful farming district,” said Mr Broadbent. He said he feared the day would come when contractors would refuse to work on properties which had no mobile phone coverage, because of occupational health and safety issues.
Tractor accidents, he pointed out, were a serious risk in the hills around Dumbalk, and mobile phone coverage was also important in a fire situation.
Mr Broadbent said he did not expect mobile phone coverage at every dip in the road, but there was certainly room for improvement in many parts of the McMillan electorate. He urged people to send in submissions arguing their need for mobile reception.
Ian Wise, from the Tarwin Valley Campdraft Association, was among community members who spoke up at the meeting. He said that hundreds of people from all over Victoria had attended a campdraft at Dumbalk the previous weekend and they were appalled at the poor quality of mobile phone reception. Had an accident occurred it could have taken a perilously long time to contact emergency services.
A Boorool farmer later told ‘The Mirror’ that he was still recovering from an accident he had while spraying blackberries. Knowing he had no mobile reception out in his paddocks, he had no phone with him and had had to stagger back to the house to his landline to summon help.
Another local told of a car accident which occurred on Farmers Road, Dumbalk North, in mid-January. The occupants of the vehicle which came along next stopped to help, but found they had no mobile reception. Fortunately, they were not far from a farmhouse, so were able to go in there to ring for an ambulance.
Bev Hanley, who is Secretary of the Dumbalk and District Progress Association, said that she and her husband, Ed, have been agitating for many years to get improved mobile phone service in Dumbalk. She said that it was particularly worrying when landlines went down as well, as they did for a couple of weeks at Dumbalk North late last year. She said that with the Dumbalk exchange one of the oldest in Victoria, and Telstra apparently unwilling to spend any money upgrading it, even the landline service could not be relied on “and lots of people rely on their phone”.
She urged community members to help bring improved mobile phone service to Dumbalk by sending an email to [email protected].