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National roaming the missing link for regional telecommunications

Regardless of who you are, what you do or where you live, mobile phones are no longer a novelty or a luxury. The reality is we live in a world where nearly everyone has access to mobile phones and, if they don’t, they should.

Access to actual mobile service on the other hand is another matter.
As someone who represents over one-third of rural and regional New South Wales, I know just how many people still struggle to access quality mobile service, particularly across my patch.
Last week the Minister for Communications, Senator the Hon Mitch Fifield and now Minister for Regional Communications, Senator the Hon Fiona Nash announced the locations of the first 78 mobile base stations. These are scheduled to be constructed by the end of June 2016 under round 1 of the $385 million Mobile Black Spot Programme.
This first round certainly brought welcome news to many communities right across the country with the full rollout of the 499 new or upgraded base stations to be completed over the next three years.
In addition to this, $60 million in funding for round 2 of this Programme was announced in June last year with new locations to be funded under the second round expected to be announced by the end of 2016.
It is usually the case that most funding announcements resulting in new and improved infrastructure for rural and regional areas is embraced by the residents surrounding it. However what happens when these residents can’t actually use the services that the infrastructure provides?
As I travel around my electorate, I often drive through the Pilliga and I can pinpoint the exact spot where I lose phone service. The strange thing is that not long after losing service, I look up and there is a massive phone tower.
The reason for this conundrum is that I have a Telstra mobile phone and the phone tower I am driving past is not a Telstra tower.
This highlights the missing link for telecommunications today - national roaming.
With a few exceptions national roaming is non-existent in Australia. While overseas visitors to Australia can utilise international roaming and quality mobile service across most of Australia, local mobile phone users cannot.
Conversely, for anyone who has travelled overseas recently, you probably experienced firsthand the advantages of international roaming with your phone finding another network to allow you to connect to other service providers to make use of your mobile phone.
I understand that Vodafone currently offers national roaming in parts of Victoria and Tasmania. When located in the relevant areas, mobile phones will automatically switch from Vodafone to Telstra for service.
Why then can national roaming just like this not be expanded to other parts of Australia through all mobile networks including Vodafone, Optus and Telstra?
While we appreciate that Telstra has a huge footprint around Australia I do not think it unreasonable to expect them to work with the likes of Vodafone and Optus to ensure that all Australians can access quality mobile coverage all the time.
Indeed it should be noted that even though Telstra operate a majority of the mobile phone towers across Australia, many of the towers they use were extensively funded in the Howard Government era.
There is also the issue of Telstra’s Universal Service Obligation (USO). The USO exists to ensure standard telephone services (STS) and payphones are reasonably accessible to all people in Australia on an equitable basis, wherever they work or live.
However with the dramatic decline in the use of landline phones, it would seem that the need for the USO is becoming less necessary.
With the launch of the first nbn satellite, the Sky Muster, last year, more and more Australians in rural and remote locations will soon be able to obtain data via satellite. In this mix are large multi-million dollar agricultural businesses that need mobile coverage and data.
So why not transfer the funding for the USO to funding for more mobile towers?
While greater investment in mobile phone tower infrastructure is a very welcome and positive step towards quality mobile phone service for rural and regional Australia, it will not be fully effective until the issue of national roaming is addressed by Australia’s leading telcos.

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