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Monday, 6 December 1999
Page: 12843

Mr SIDEBOTTOM (4:48 PM) —In my first grievance debate in this House six months ago I raised the issue of the privatisation of Telstra and the need for improving telecommunications services in my electorate of Braddon, which takes in the north-west coast of Tasmania—of which you, Mr Deputy Speaker Jenkins, are well aware and which you have visited—parts of the west coast and King Island. I remember pointing out that the social bonus rhetoric that government members boasted about did not disguise the fact that in my electorate a sizeable number of communities, households and businesses could not access basic television, radio and mobile phone services. The government went on a roadshow announcing social bonus projects and, I must say, many of these projects would appear to benefit my state. I am not complaining necessarily about these and I concede that with the sale of the second tranche of Telstra we must now set out to ensure that the so-called social benefits that fall to communities do indeed benefit those communities.

Being a member of this House's Standing Committee on Primary Industries and Regional Services has allowed me to travel around regional Australia. Time and time again—and I do not mind harping about this because I have done so many times before and I hear other members in this House from both sides doing the same—communities complain about poor to non-existent telecommunications services and products ranging from installation and servicing problems in telephony, poor TV reception, no SBS and no mobile phone coverage to the high cost of ISDN connection and so forth.

It is somewhat ironic that we have a major debate going on about high definition TV when large numbers of our citizens cannot even access basic television services let alone other telecommunications. I would have thought our first priority—that is, our first social benefit—would be to rectify this situation so that there is some equity amongst rural, remote, regional and metropolitan Australians. No wonder regional Australia is screaming out for some notice, some recognition, that people actually do live, work, recreate and learn in these regions and would like to continue to do so.

In a more concerted attempt to highlight the inequity that exists concerning basic telecommunications infrastructure and services in my own electorate, I set out to conduct a telecommunications black spot audit. The black spot audit questionnaire was distributed electorate wide and included the now redistributed part of Lyons—that is, the Latrobe municipality— in order to get a representative sample. It sought to identify and quantify major telecommunications problem areas in terms of location, the telecommunications product itself and the extent of the problem.

Until now, evidence of telecommunications problems across the north-west coast has been largely anecdotal. The audit deliberately focused on obtaining information and comment from people living, working and recreating in major black spot areas as distinct from those experiencing minor difficulties with telecommunications. It sought simple, non-emotive and factual information and targeted areas where coverage is either non-existent or very poor. This criterion was stressed several times to isolate genuine black spots. The questionnaire specifically sought information related to TV reception where people actually live, mobile phone coverage where people live, work and recreate—all of these individually—and radio reception related to Triple J and ABC Radio National where people live. There was also a chance for people to comment on each of the TV, mobile phone and radio categories.

The audit took 2½ months to complete and has been quantified in a 50-page report to be distributed to all levels of government, to industry and to interested parties. Six hundred responses were received from across the north-west coast, including the Latrobe municipality and parts of the west coast. This is considered a good electorate-wide sample, particularly as the survey focused only on major black spot areas where, as I mentioned, coverage is either non-existent or very poor. Responses were received from 75 separate locations from the Port Sorell, Shearwater and Hawley areas in the east to Three Hummock Island in the west. The response from hinterland areas was no surprise, given the well-known anecdotal evidence and the topography of the region. The worst affected areas include Gunns Plains, Turners Beach, my own village of Forth, Penguin, Heybridge, Sisters Beach, beautiful Boat Harbour and widespread locations in the Circular Head municipality and King Island. Residents in these areas reported problems across the spectrum of questions on the survey form.

What was surprising was the response from the major population centres of Devonport, Ulverstone, Burnie and Wynyard. The audit revealed significant problem areas in Devonport and Burnie, with a 10 per cent response to the survey from both cities. The central coast municipality, including Ulverstone, Forth, Turners Beach, Gunns Plains and Penguin, registered 18 per cent of responses. There was a similar response from areas within the Wynyard-Waratah region, particularly with regard to television reception and mobile phone coverage in Sisters Beach and Boat Harbour. Areas within the Latrobe municipality, primarily Port Sorell, Shearwater and Hawley, are also experiencing problems, mainly with television reception.

Over 20 per cent of respondents were from the Circular Head region, which again highlighted problems ranging from unwatchable television, both commercial and ABC stations—and I point out that SBS is not yet available in the Circular Head region—to mobile phone coverage and poor radio reception. As expected, there was a high response rate from King Island, which still has no mobile phone or SBS coverage and is fearful of losing its emergency paging system by June.

Twenty-six mobile telephone black spots were listed in the region, while 100 respondents reported problems with coverage at work, and 70 separate locations were identified as problem areas in leisure and recreational activities. Remember, we are talking about non-existent to very poor reception. A further 192 people reported no mobile phone coverage where they live, and another 108 said that the signal drops in and out. Respondents from more than 80 locations said that radio reception was poor, while there were another 53 locations that did not receive ABC Radio National and Triple J.

I know that few people know where Braddon is and few people seem to worry about a few hundred people, but 600 people in my electorate is a lot of people because we are talking about 70 to 80 locations being affected as black spots. In proportion to my electorate, that is large. We have a problem, and we have to seek ways of fixing the problem.

As I mentioned earlier, it has been said that money from the sale of the further 16 per cent of Telstra will give Tasmanians access to advanced telecommunications systems, and that is to be commended. At Burnie on Sunday the Portside project was opened as a business incubator by Senator Watson, Premier Bacon representing the Tasmanian government, and the Burnie municipal council. It is a great initiative, and I commend the government for its support of that. These are great things. But we are talking about basic reception of television, radio and mobile phone, not the more sophisticated telecommunications systems. In many forms in this region or in my region people cannot get something as basic as proper TV reception.

It is imperative that concerns over television reception across the north-west and the west coast of Tasmania are taken into account when policy guidelines are developed by the government for the black spot component of the federal government's $120 million television fund. When these guidelines have been finalised, applications will be invited from people and organisations that are eligible for assistance under the fund. A detailed schedule of plans to upgrade mobile telephone coverage under the expanded mobile phone coverage program in Tasmania is also yet to be finalised. Tasmania has also been promised $10 million from the Building Additional Rural Networks program, BARN, to improve telecommunications services. I hope that the information collected and the comments in my black spot audit will assist in helping a share of this funding materialise in the north-west region.

I would like to finish with some of the comments from survey participants. I am sure these will be replicated in other regional areas of Australia. `Some evenings it is pointless turning on the TV,' said X of Penguin. Another respondent said, `We can get signals from outer space, why not at Sisters Beach?' `It seems once you leave major centres the government couldn't care less,' said a respondent from Spreyton. `I pay my taxes like everyone else so I expect the same services as everyone else,' said a respondent from Stanley. `All up and down the west coast is one big black spot,' said a respondent from Moorleah. Another respondent said, `TV is quite boring with only one station to watch.' A respondent from Gunns Plains said, `No reception whatsoever. Simply does not exist.' `We need a mobile phone service to keep up with other businesses that take it for granted,' said a respondent from Marrawah.