By any measure, 2016 has been a year firmly focused on regional telecommunications issues.
That’s a good thing, because we know how important communications and coverage is in regional areas. And this importance is only going to grow as technology further transforms industries like agriculture, creates new and better ways to educate children, and helps deliver support to older people and those living with a disability.
For Telstra this means planning, investing and building to deliver better services to regional customers.
Since the start of the year we’ve been rolling out 577 new mobile base stations as part of the Mobile Black Spot Programme. That’s hundreds more than our competitors. This is just part of our plans for regional Australia that could unleash up to $1 billion of investment and co-investment over the next five years.
Mobile spectrum is this basis of any good network and in February we invested $190 million to extend the amount of spectrum we can use in 12 regional areas, including major cities like Albury, Cairns, Grafton, Mackay and Darwin and their surrounding areas. This is on top of the $1.3 billion in spectrum we purchased in 2013.
We’re providing new connections to really remote places. We are delivering a 600km high-speed fibre connection to the townships of Jundah, Windorah, Stonehenge, Bedourie and Birdsville, enabling mobile base stations in the region to be updated to 4GX. In Far North Queensland we’ve just finished connecting Aurukun with a fibre connection and 4G mobile services.
It’s not just physical infrastructure. We’re working in lots of ways to bring innovation and technology home to regional Australia.
Through our Communicare business we are helping Indigenous community health services to ‘close the gap’ by giving patients better information as well as analysing data so that patients and their carers can make better decisions.
We launched our Telstra Kids Fund Digital Futures program to boost digital skills in young people living in regional areas. Next year we will host more than 40 regional events, from robotic workshops in Alice Springs and Bunbury, to digital media making projects in Dubbo and Port Augusta. We’ve already run cyberbullying workshops in regional Tasmania, Victoria, Western Australia and New South Wales and Queensland to tackle higher rates of cyberbullying in regional areas.
The Tech Savvy Seniors program is providing free, comfortably-paced digital training sessions for seniors. The popular program has already run in areas like Burdekin, Charters Towers and Cloncurry. Our Tech Savvy Elders program, designed for Indigenous seniors, ran special programs in Redfern, Eden, Ulladulla, Nambucca and Evans Head.
One of our biggest competitors, Vodafone, talk a lot about regional services but do very little. For example, in the most recent round of the Mobile Black Spot Programme, Vodafone was only willing to contribute $1.6 million to improving regional coverage. Compare that with Telstra’s commitment of $63.7 million and Optus’ commitment of $36.4 million.
And despite claims that Telstra’s mobile network is funded by the government, prior to the Black Spot Programme, government funding accounted for less than 1 per cent of Telstra’s investment in the mobile network.
The infrastructure we build and the services we provide come under some pretty heavy regulation, and this year we’ve seen some significant discussions taking place.
The Productivity Commission has released a draft report into the future of the telecommunications Universal Service Obligation (USO). We think that there are positive ways the USO can be reformed, and we’re looking forward to working on this in the new year.
The ACCC has launched an inquiry into whether or not Australia should have regulated mobile roaming. This would be a bad deal for regional communities. Just last week we saw more than 100 organisations, councils and businesses have their say. The signal was clear, regulated roaming is not the right way to improve regional telecommunications.
Telstra has a long standing commitment to regional Australia. We also know there’s more work to do. We are looking forward to rolling up our sleeves in 2017 and getting back to work to deliver more for our customers and our communities. To make that possible, we need Australia’s regulators and policy makers to continue to set fair rules that reward investment and hard work.