Regional telecommunications measures

Budget Review 2022–23 Index

Elliott King

The 2022–23 Budget contains a range of measures that respond to the 2021 Regional telecommunications review (Hartsuyker Review). The Hartsuyker Review is the fifth statutory review of regional telecommunications (p. 14). The review considered access, reliability, and equity of telecommunication services in regional, rural and remote Australia, particularly issues posed by poor telecommunications services and the ability of regional Australians to engage in the digital economy.

Regional Telecommunications Review recommendations

The Hartsuyker Review made 16 findings about the coordination of investment in infrastructure and service delivery, and the reliability and resilience of these services—particularly during natural disasters. It also considered the suitability of existing services to meet data demands, and the complexities faced by consumers attempting to address their service issues. To address the findings the Hartsuyker Review (pp. 11–13) made 12 recommendations:

  1. adoption of a longer-term strategic approach to regional digital infrastructure and skills
  2. increase government investment in regional connectivity
  3. implement a regional telecommunications resilience fund
  4. trial emerging connectivity technologies
  5. build connectivity literacy and digital capability among regional users
  6. enhance NBN Co’s regional fixed wireless and Sky Muster services
  7. implement and enforce new performance and reliability standards for wholesale and retail services
  8. continue but reform existing universal services for the future
  9. improve consumer information about mobile services including coverage and performance
  10. encourage shared network access and innovative funding for mobile in regional areas
  11. focus on the digital needs of Indigenous communities
  12. improve affordability for vulnerable groups in regional areas.

Budget response to the Hartsuyker Review

The 2022–23 Budget has allocated $1.3 billion to investment in telecommunications infrastructure over 6 years from 2022–23 (Budget measures: budget paper no. 2: 2022–23, p. 134). This package of funding includes:

  • $811.8 million over 5 years to the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications (DITRDC) ‘to expand mobile coverage, connectivity, resilience and affordability in regional Australia’
  • $480.0 million in the 2021–22 financial year for NBN Co to upgrade its fixed wireless and satellite networks
  • $1.8 million in 2022–23 to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to conduct a review of mobile tower access fees.

Connecting Regional Australia

The $811.8 million funding for DITRDC is identified in the Regional ministerial budget statement (RMBS) as the Connecting Regional Australia (CRA) initiative (p. 230). The CRA is primarily intended to build on the Mobile Black Spot Program, Regional Connectivity Programs and Regional Tech Hub initiatives (RMBS, pp. 230–31). The Government’s response to the Hartsuyker Review explains that the CRA will be used to ‘target six main streams, but will operate as a dynamic fund with the ability to redirect funds between streams to reflect priorities’ (p. 9).

The Government’s response (p. 9) also indicates that the 6 key streams are aimed at:

  • expanding open access mobile coverage, including on major transport routes and to adjacent residences, businesses and tourist hotspots
  • targeted investment to address specific needs, such as improving voice, broadband, mobile, business and backhaul services where required
  • improving the resilience of infrastructure
  • emerging technology trials
  • improving Indigenous connectivity
  • improving affordability.

Moreover, the CRA is listed in the Government’s response as either the mechanism, or a possible mechanism, to respond to recommendations 2–6 and 10–12, inclusive.

In line with these recommendations, the Government has earmarked CRA funding for certain purposes:

  • $418 million ‘for an estimated 8,000 kilometres of new open access mobile coverage’ (Recommendation 2)
  • $196.4 million ‘for other place-based and targeted projects’ (Recommendation 2)
  • $106 million for ‘improving the resilience of telecommunications network infrastructure’, including preparation for emergency events (Recommendation 3)
  • $5 million to fund ‘innovation trials to validate the value and reliability of new technology’ to address regional communication issues (Recommendation 4)
  • additional funding for the Regional Tech Hub initiative (Recommendation 5), which the RMBS (p. 253) identifies as $5 million over 5 years
  • $30 million to address affordability issues for low-income and income support recipient consumers in regional Australia (Recommendation 12).

However, funding may be transferred between the streams to ‘reflect priorities’ (p. 9). The earmarked items account for around $760 million of the $811.8 million available under the CRA.

In recommendations 6, 10 and 11 of the Hartsuyker Review, the CRA is flagged as a potential funding mechanism for further expansion of fixed wireless infrastructure, funding operational and maintenance costs for shared access mobile infrastructure, and community Indigenous digital inclusion programs where funding is not otherwise available. Assuming the earmarked allocations are fixed, there is around $51 million over the 6 years in unallocated funds that could be used for these purposes.

NBN upgrade

The NBN Co upgrade implements Recommendation 6 of the Hartsuyker Review (p. 12). It is intended to extend NBN Co’s fixed wireless coverage to an additional 120,000 premises and improve regional and peri-urban connectivity (RMBS, p. 231). When the Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure and the Arts announced this initiative prior to the Budget, he outlined that the measure partially funds the $750 million upgrade, with the remaining $270 million to be contributed by NBN Co.

ACCC review of access fees

The ACCC review of access fees forms part of the Government’s response to Recommendation 10 of the Hartsuyker Review. Specifically, that ‘preference is given to Government funded mobile infrastructure providing shared network access’ (p. 14).

Other responses

Other recommendations which have been agreed to and addressed in the Budget include:

  • Recommendation 6: the new Cell Broadcast National Messaging System (CBNMS), which appears as a measure in the Disaster Support package; however, its financial impact is ‘not for publication’ (nfp) due to commercial-in-confidence considerations (Budget paper no. 2, p. 158; see also RMBS, p. 232).
  • Recommendation 3: the provision of $4.8 million in 2022–23 to extend the Mobile Network Hardening Program (Budget paper no. 2, p. 134). However, it is unclear if this is in addition to the $10.9 million announced on 5 March 2022.

As the CBNMS is an ‘nfp’ item, the cost of the CBNMS is likely accounted for in the contingency reserve for decisions taken but not yet announced (Budget strategy and outlook: budget paper no. 1: 2022–23, p. 173).

Stakeholder views

Stakeholders and commentators have generally responded positively to the Government’s budget measures and responses to the review.

ABC journalist Matt Wordsworth drew a connection between the announcement of measures to address mobile blackspots, and residents’ recent experiences in the Queensland and NSW floods. The National Farmers Federation ‘welcomed’ the Government’s response to the Hartsuyker Review and the measures proposed in the Budget.

Conversely, coverage by online news site ITNews highlighted perceived shortfalls in the Government’s response to the Hartsuyker Review, with one article claiming:

While it committed $1.3 billion over six years to upgrade non-metro telecommunications, most of the remaining actions remain stalled and contingent on further reviews and consultations.

Another ITNews article claimed that inaction by the Government on subsidising NBN Co service fees for low-income households was a failure of the response measures.


All online articles accessed April 2022

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