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Monday, 19 September 2011
Page: 10414

Ballarat Electorate: Mobile Phone Services

Dear Mr Murphy

Telecommunication services in the Hepburn Shire

Thank you for your letter dated 30 May 2011 concerning a petition submitted for the Committee's consideration regarding telecommunication services in the Hepburn Shire. Please accept my apologies for the delay in responding.

The Australian Government understands the importance of mobile telephony to Australians. In recent years the mobile phone carriers have significantly expanded their terrestrial mobile networks. Vodafone Hutchison Australia claims its networks currently cover more than 94 per cent of the Australian population. Optus claims its 3G network provides services to 97 per cent of the Australian population. Telstra claims its Next G network now provides mobile coverage to 99 per cent of Australians.

For the most part the recent extension of mobile coverage across Australia has been based on commercial decisions by carriers. In making a decision to extend coverage to a particular area, carriers will consider a range of factors, including site availability, cost structures, likely levels of demand from users and overall economic viability of the service.

Residents of Hepburn Shire may wish to contact Telstra, Optus and Vodafone Hutchison Australia to make their needs known. I have enclosed the contact details of the carriers for reference. It can be useful to involve local government in identifying potential demand for mobile services in the area. Information such as projections of population growth, visitors to the region and records of traffic volumes can be helpful in assisting carriers to make informed decisions about whether to extend coverage to certain areas.

Sometimes commercial barriers to improving coverage are insurmountable. New tower sites in mountainous terrain are often more difficult to justify than proposals for towers on flatter, cleared ground. As mentioned in the petition, the mobile phone signal in this terrain is often blocked by the mountains and therefore does not travel as far. Carriers often find it difficult to justify new towers in this situation as the number of users who can access any given tower is very limited.

Mobile phone services in emergency situations

While mobile phone services improve communications in everyday situations, experience from the 2009 bushfires in Victoria is that terrestrial mobile phone towers are not 100 per cent reliable in emergency situations. Being located at the top of prominent hills for the best geographical coverage of the area, they are extremely vulnerable to bushfires, attendant power outages and are often at high risk of being destroyed or damaged during these events.

In consideration of the bushfires and other recent natural disasters, there has been an increased focus on emergency communications and response systems. Due to the risk that the networks themselves might be impacted by the emergency, telephone-based emergency warning systems are only a supplement to, and not a replacement for, the range of measures currently used to warn the public of emergencies.

There are many ways of conveying information and warnings during an emergency including television, radio, public address systems, doorknocking, sirens and signage. In addition, emergency warnings are transmitted via telephone land lines, terrestrial mobile phones and satellite phones.

Given this, the residents of Hepburn Shire may wish to consider using a satellite-based means of communication. In contrast to terrestrially based mobile networks, the infrastructure for satellite mobile telephony is predominantly located in space, and so is less subject to disruption from bushfires. Satellite mobile phone services cover the entire Australian landmass and population and are available from a number of providers.

Satellite Phone Subsidy Scheme

The resident of Hepburn Shire and surrounding areas may be eligible to apply for a subsidy under the Satellite Phone Subsidy Scheme (the scheme). The scheme improves the affordability of mobile communications for people living and working in areas without terrestrial mobile coverage, by providing subsidies for the purchase of satellite phone handsets.

The scheme provides up to $1000 for eligible applicants who live in areas without terrestrial mobile coverage or up to $700 for eligible applicants who live in areas that have coverage, but spend more than 180 days across a two year period in non-coverage areas.

Under the scheme's rules, those eligible to apply include individuals, small businesses, community groups, not-for-profit organisations, Indigenous corporations, emergency service organisations, health organisations and educational institutions.

The application form for the scheme is available from the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. Visit www.dbcde.gov.au/satphone for further information. An information kit can be obtained by contacting the scheme administrator on 1800 674 058 or via email at satphone@dbcde.gov.au.

Other technology for requesting assistance

In emergency situations, an alternative to telephone communications is the use of distress beacon units, such as an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) or Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs). These devices are designed to assist in an emergency by alerting rescue authorities and indicating location.

More recent models incorporate Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology, enabling much more accurate determination of the location compared with earlier models. These devices are not as limited by terrain as mobile phones and, by providing the location, will speed up any rescue effort. A variety of providers around Australia offer these for sale or hire.

Thank you for bringing the petition from the citizens of Hepburn Shire to my attention. I trust this information will be of assistance.

from the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy