• Staff Writers

Mobile coverage 'life or death' in the regions

Inadequate mobile and internet coverage impacts the daily lives of people in regional and rural Australia, especially during emergencies, a report tabled in Canberra on Monday finds.

A report of the Regional Telecommunications Review committee tabled in federal parliament on Monday, has made 16 key findings about the state of telecommunications in country Australia, and 12 recommendations to improve services.

It says telecommunications should be given the same priority as roads and energy, and classified as an essential service because of its importance in "life or death" situations. 

Among the findings was that recent disasters, including floods, fires and cyclones, impact network and power supplies, reducing access to both help and long-term disaster recovery.

The committee recommends the government direct substantial funds to improving network coverage and emergency resilience in vulnerable communities. It found:

"Numerous participants in the review have expressed their fear around loss of life or limb during recent bushfires, weather events and floods, compounded by the inability to communicate with emergency services ... or receive real time updates on the rapidly evolving situation."

The committee found that mobile black spots persist across regional Australia. Expanding mobile coverage to remote and sparsely-populated areas is proving difficult due to a limited return-on-investment for industry.

"The vast majority of individual submissions to this review have highlighted both the role that mobile coverage plays in the economic productivity and social wellbeing of regional consumers, and the serious impacts that a lack of mobile reception can have when people need it most," the report said.

The committee recommends the government look at funding models for its $875 million mobile black spot program to increase competition, while also auditing coverage performance across regional Australia.

The NBN's Sky Muster satellite service, which delivers broadband to remote areas, is often criticised for its data constraints, especially by farming families on outback stations.

Though Sky Muster expanded its unmetered services during COVID-19 lockdowns, the committee heard of frequent drop-outs, impacting business operations, schooling and telehealth appointments. 

There is low consumer awareness and understanding of its premium service, Sky Muster Plus, which allows unmetered access for web browsing and email, the review found.

The report recommends extending the reach of the NBN network to areas serviced by Sky Muster, and enforcing minimum wholesale and retail service, performance and reliability standards.

Part of the recommendation also includes introducing escalating penalties for failure to meet those standards.

Senator Bridget McKenzie, Minister for Regional Communications, said the government has invested in better telecommunications, including its $380 million Regional Connectivity Program.

"These programs represent an investment that is improving connectivity in regional, rural and remote areas of Australia, both now and into the future, ensuring people are connected to each other and helping businesses to prosper in the modern global marketplace," she said.

Opposition communication spokeswoman Michelle Rowland said the review shows high-speed internet and connectivity are not "luxuries", but essential infrastructure.

"What is clear is there remains much more that needs to be done in regional telecommunications."