THE VICTORIAN Labor government is hitting out at federal mobile funding programs, as it taps a commercial solution to target its areas of poor coverage.
Minister for trade, investment and the digital economy Philip Dalidakis says Victoria is co-investing with Optus in a $16 million program to build 25 regional tower because “the federal government stiffed Victorians again in infrastructure funding”.
Mr Dalidakis is angry at a perceived lack of consultation over locations nominated by the federal government for Victoria in the third round of blackspot funding, arguing locations nominated by the state were overlooked.
The blackspot program combines $220 million in Commonwealth funding to leverage investment from states and telcos to build new mobile phone towers in under serviced areas. The program is worth $600m in total.
“On what possible assessment could the federal government deny applications to communities without service that are in some of the most bushfire prone areas? Black Saturday was in 2009 but it is ever present in the minds of those people.”
Round three was funded entirely with federal money to build towers in uncommercial locations. Government allocated $60m in funding to 125 locations across the country.
NSW and Queensland were the biggest recipients - with 31 and 49 towers, respectively while Victoria got 18.
The federal government said round three was a win for the bush.
“Priority locations were chosen using community feedback for places which the telecommunications companies had not made a bid for in rounds one and two. All towers will be delivered,” said a spokesperson for then Regional Telecommunications Minister Fiona Nash said at the time.
According to Mr Dalidakis, the federal government did not work with Victoria to prioritise locations.
“There was no consultation with our department and no explanation of decision making,” he said.
“The Coalition pork barrelled in Queensland and NSW, where they think they will get more bang for their buck.”
Lobby group Australian Communications Consumer Action Network chief executive Teresa Corbin questioned the funding allocation process, following the release of the round three locations in June.
“Until now there hasn’t a been clear list of which locations were likely to get the funding and it’s been a bit of a concern that there hasn’t been any transparency in that,” she said.
Optus’ investment is part of its $1 billion regional mobile rollout, announced in July.
The 25 towers in Victoria are expected to be operational by the end of next year.
Optus vice president public affairs Andrew Sheridan said the partnership vindicated the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission's (ACCC) decision to reject mobile roaming, which his company opposed on grounds that forcing telco’s to share service among their towers would stifle investment in new infrastructure.
“This is an exciting program for us, and a great example of how private and public funding can deliver coverage to unserviced regional areas,” Mr Sheridan said.
Would Victoria pull out of any future federal funding programs?
“While I’m not in position to announce future government policy, I would say that could be something we look to pursue,” Mr Dalidakis said.
The 25 sites for new towers include: Leongatha South, Lower Norton, Maryknoll, Nanneella (live), Haddon North, Teesdale, Willow Grove, Monegeetta, Badger Creek, Brim, Pomonal, Tuerong, Tuerong West, Main Ridge West, Yackandandah North, Cape Clear, Port Campbell North, Edgecombe, Hawkesdale, Thorpdale, Wharparilla, Winslow, Woolsthorpe, Girgarre and Kennett River.