Update December 2017: Tenders sought for priority mobile towers. Federal Communications Minister Mitch Fifield recently announced a tender process for construction of 106 mobile towers across Australia, having committed $60 million for Round Three of its Mobile Black Spot Program. In our region, tenders are being sought to construct towers in Aireys inlet, Anglesea, Bellbrae and Birregurra – towns identified as having poor or no mobile coverage. (Information from the Surf Coast Times 21 December 2017).
Update March 2017: Members will be aware that on two occasions AIDA has applied for Aireys Inlet and district to be included in the Mobile Black Spot Program. We are particularly concerned that in the peak bushfire hazard period when mobile phone communication is essential for receiving emergency notifications and when our resident population increases eight-fold, mobile phone reception can be inadequate. When we heard that we were unsuccessful with the latest application (under Round Two of the Program), we wrote to Senator Fiona Nash, Minister for Regional Communications, and our local member, Sarah Henderson MP.
The reply from Senator Nash stated that Aireys Inlet ‘… will be given priority under round three.’ However, she went on to write ‘It is expected that a competitive process to allocate round 3 funding will commence in this year.’ The last sentence does not guarantee us priority.
By contrast the message from our local member was more positive. Sarah Henderson wrote ‘I am pleased to inform you that our government has already committed to provide funding for new mobile base stations at Anglesea, Aireys Inlet, Bellbrae and Birregurra. This was announced in May 2016 by the Prime Minister in Anglease [sic] (as an election commitment) and will be delivered as part of Round Three of the program. All successful locations, regardless of the funding round, are being delivered as soon as possible within the life of the $220m program (2015-2018).’ AIDA members will hope that our local member is correct and we receive the service by 2018.
Members will be pleased to hear that we are still in the running for improved mobile reception. However, our community remains exposed until we have a new base station. Consequently, we asked Ms Henderson to lobby for the provision of a temporary base station during the bushfire season. She has written to the regional manager of Telstra on our behalf.
December 2016 Update! Aireys Inlet has again been overlooked for funding of a new base station to fix the mobile black spot in our district!
Have you noticed that during the summer period, when demand for mobile phone services is at its highest, reception is often intermittent? And that when you travel half way to Anglesea the phone drops out? Summer is the time when residents need good mobile phone contact, critical for bushfire safety and the proper functioning of the FireReady app. AIDA has been lobbying for several years on the community’s behalf to get this dangerous situation remedied (see history below) and thought that progress was being made, albeit too slowly. Thus in May 2016 we reported that Federal funding had been announced for a new mobile base station in Aireys Inlet. The upcoming Federal Election appeared to have accelerated the decision on second round funding of new base stations to fix mobile black spots. An announcement on the website of Federal Member for Corangamite, Sarah Henderson MP read:
“After committing to fund four new base stations prior to the 2016 federal election, I am delighted to confirm that the Turnbll Goverment is in the process of putting out to tender the construction of new base stations for Aireys Inlet, Anglesea, Bellbrae and Birregurra. This is part of a further $60m commitment to the Mobile Black Spot Programme, in addition to the $160m in funding previously announced.”
Unfortunately, on 2 December 2016 AIDA learned that that the above announcement had been premature and our district has again missed out on funding for improved mobile phone coverage and capacity under Round Two of the Federal Government’s Mobile Phone Black Spots program. Our area is not one of the four new mobile phone base stations to be built along the Great Ocean Road.
Federal MP Sarah Henderson nominated Aireys Inlet for funding and it is disappointing that our area has missed out. AIDA will write to the State Government’s Emergency Services Minister to request a temporary base station to cover the current fire season.
History of our lobbying effort
In February 2014 the federal government advertised two projects to improve coverage in regional areas of Australia. The $80 million Mobile Network Expansion Project is designed to improve mobile coverage along major transport routes, in small communities and in communities that are prone to natural disasters. The $20 million Mobile Black Spot Project is intended to improve mobile coverage in locations with unique coverage problems such as areas with high demand for services, for example in summer.
AIDA submitted a case for Aireys Inlet and district to be considered for improvement to existing mobile phone coverage under these projects. We also encouraged the shire to submit a proposal. Our community fitted the criteria for consideration under each project. If we could achieve an upgrade, we could expect widespread media coverage.
In response to AIDA’s submission to the Member for Corangamite, Sarah Henderson MP, requesting that Aireys Inlet and district be included in the Federal Government’s funding to address mobile black spots in Australia we learned that Ms Henderson had received nominations from nineteen areas in her electorate.
A survey by the Department of Communications found that Corangamite was among the electorates with the highest number of mobile black spots in Australia. However, only three areas from Corangamite were able to be nominated for inclusion and Aireys Inlet and district was not included in the recommendations. The communities that were included were the ones from which Ms Henderson received the most correspondence. AIDA argued, without success, that we represented hundreds of residents and that our application should be given greater weight.
Subsequently AIDA was advised that the Federal Department of Communications has said locations to be included in the program would be selected based on where mobile carriers proposed to build towers after referring to the black-spot nominations. AIDA sought clarification about this and continued to lobby for improvements to mobile coverage in the area.
As part of that lobbying effort, AIDA wrote to Ms Henderson (with a copy to Malcolm Turnbull, Federal Minister for Communications) noting that effective communication in our region can be a matter of life and death in the summer bushfire season, when the number of residents in Lorne, Aireys Inlet and district and Anglesea during the peak summer period is almost 40,000 not including day-trippers or those passing through the towns. The letter also noted that the only effective escape route for residents and visitors to the three towns is the Great Ocean Road so that without early warning assistance via the FireReady app and other mobile communications, not all 40,000 will escape.
Other points made in the letter were as follows:
The difference in distribution of residents between most of the year and peak summer tells the key story. The mobile system more or less copes in winter, at least in the townships, but with the summer numbers it frequently fails totally or download speeds become pathetically slow. It is the summer period that is critical in so many ways. We live in a bushfire prone area and need access to our FireReady app, to mobile bushfire alerts and to contact with relatives. Businesses need to be able to carry on and provide services. Without phone communication, so much falls into a heap and life becomes more hazardous.
The Telstra Mobile Network coverage map indicates the service should be better than locals experience. When one drives from Aireys Inlet to Lorne or to Anglesea,mobile coverage drops out repeatedly. This is the winter situation – it is far worse in summer. The western part of Anglesea along the Great Ocean Road, even in winter, often has poor or no coverage, despite what is shown Telstra’s coverage map. This occurs on even the most up-to-date phones.
In late 2015, AIDA learned that our district had not been successful in that first round of funding.
Some members of the AIDA committee met with the member for Corangamite, Sarah Henderson MP, on 29 January 2016 to discuss our application for funding. We emphasised the poor mobile reception, the need for better communications in a bushfire-prone area that needs access to information (including the FireReady app) for safety, the single significant road for evacuation and a tiny place of last resort (Bottom Shops car park).
AIDA then reapplied for Aireys Inlet, Fairhaven, Moggs Creek and Eastern View to be considered in the $60 million second round, for which Sarah Henderson had the opportunity to nominate three areas for funding. We were pleased to learn that she had nominated the Aireys Inlet area as one of her three priority areas (along with Anglesea and Bellbrae). If the application were successful, a base station would be installed in Aireys Inlet to improve mobile reception. The member for Corangamite hoped that, if the application were successful, the siting will accommodate all of Aireys Inlet and district.
A competitive selection process then took place with mobile network operators bidding for what they could achieve for the money available. Co-contributions, for example from the Surf Coast Shire, could have been important. Successful nominations were to be announced before the end of 2016 and the rollout from both funding rounds completed within three years.
Unfortunately, as noted above, we learned in December 2016 that Aireys Inlet has again been overlooked for funding of a new base station to fix the mobile black spot in our district!
Gary Johnson and Charlotte Allen