The Regional Telecommunications Independent Review Committee chair, Sean Edwards.
By VINNIE RODI
THE Mildura community, albeit it only a small portion of it, has had its say about the quality and accessibility of internet and mobile phone services in the region as part of a review into regional telecommunications.
The Federal Government’s Regional Telecommunications Independent Review Committee sat in Mildura on Tuesday at the Quality Hotel Mildura Grand, and was led by Chair Sean Edwards.
The committee’s meeting was mainly focused on how regional communities can maximise the social and economic benefits that digital technology provides, while also discussing some of the challenges faced by regional areas when it comes to reliable access to services.
While not drawing a big crowd – much to the surprise of Mr Edwards – this week’s hearing did spark some lively discussion, with both Mildura Rural City and Wentworth Shire councils, NBN Co. and Telstra represented at the event.
Surprisingly, only one public on-looker joined the roundtable discussions, prompting Mr Edwards to jokingly state that, “all must be well in Mildura.”
Also in attendance was Mildura Councillors Jason Modica and Glenn Milne.
Joining Mr Edwards was fellow committee members Wendy Duncan, Johanna Plante, Robbie Sefton, Kylie Stretton and Paul Weller, with several concerns and queries raised during the Mildura session.
They included a lack of connectivity in remote areas, reliability of mobile and internet networks, and the need for increased infrastructure, while Cr Modica also called for “equitable opportunity” to be a focus of the committee’s findings.
“There’s a feeling in the regions that we don’t get equal opportunity of service, which leads to a lack of confidence in these services,” he said.
Council’s general manager Corporate, Chris Parham, also raised the need for more shared infrastructure to be in place across the country, while highlighting the fact that education, tourism and various other industries were becoming more reliant on telecommunications, namely a reliable internet connection.
Mr Parham also queried whether more could be done to open up government-owned buildings, like police stations, government offices and public schools, which all have access to high-speed, cable internet, to the broader community.
Wentworth Shire Council Director Finance and Policy, Simon Rule, added that a lack of access to reliable and fast internet services was also having an impact when it came to attracting new businesses and residents to the Shire.
Mr Edwards told the Mildura Weekly that a number of common themes had been expressed by communities through the review, with many of those themes reflected in the Mildura discussion.
“We’re about halfway through (the review) at the moment, and what we are finding is that there’s been a dramatic increase of services, offerings and increased technological advances since the last regional telecommunications review was conducted in 2015,” he said.
“In that time there’s been this massive leap in everything available from smartphones to fixed wireless, NBN Sky Muster etc. – there is such a diversity of services available.
“One of the problems that comes with that is the issue of digital literacy, and we’re finding that there is a lot of confusion about what services are available in either broadband or mobile telecommunications, and an understanding of the technologies that drives the various services.
“Fixed wireless is also something that people are focused on, and various areas of Australia are serviced with fibre to the node, fibre to the curb and fibre to the premises.
“Now that these things are available to people, our focus is on how best can communities benefit. This review… is by far the most extensive review in history, and there’s not too much of Australia we’re not seeing.”
Mr Edwards said another constant theme, which was continued in Mildura this week, was calls for more infrastructure.
“It’s been profound,” he said.
“The issue is who is responsible for it. Arguably the retailers, so Telstra, Optus etc. are the natural targets, but sadly they will not be able to keep pace across the nation based on demand.
“There’s actually never been more money spent on the regions when it comes to mobile blackspots – but it’s an insatiable beast.
“Three years ago, when this review was last held, no one could have envisaged the amount of data required by Australians.”
Mr Edwards said a lack of competition in regional areas, and frustrations with retailer’s not sharing resources, was also proving a common theme.
He even went as far as to call on NBN Co. to do more in Mildura to improve consumer confidence.
“This community does not trust that you can deliver,” he told NBN Co. representatives in the room. “You have your work cut out to get your message across.”
The Regional Telecommunications Independent Review Committee will report its findings to Federal Minister for Regional Communications, Senator Bridget McKenzie, by September 30.
Mr Edwards encouraged all sections of the Mildura community to make submissions right up to the review’s 5pm August 5 deadline, saying that every bit of information collected would be considered.
More information, or to make a submission, is available online at www.rtirc.gov.au.