Thank you for the opportunity to address your Regional Forum.

When I commenced my journey in the Federal Parliament 20 years ago, I was of the view that our national parliament was the most challenging level of government.

It didn’t take me too long to work out that despite the seemingly never-ending list of issues to be dealt with from the green seats in the House of Representatives, it was in fact Local Government that is the most challenging.

At a federal level much of what you are involved with on a daily basis was somewhat removed from your constituency.

In Local Government everything you do and every decision you make has an immediate and often significant impact on the people you represent.

Over my time in Canberra I found the really effective programs with high rates of return on investment and great outcomes were so often partnerships between Federal and Local Government. Roads to Recovery is an excellent example of that.

I thank you for your commitment to your communities and our system of government.

Under Telecommunications legislation every three years a review must be conducted into the adequacy of telecommunications services in regional, rural and remote Australia.

The review that my committee and I will be conducting will be the fifth such review providing a report card as to the state of play in regional telecommunications. We will also be providing recommendations to government as to ways in which services in regional areas can be improved.

Significant improvements have been made in recent years. In every premise, no matter where you are, or how remote how remote you can have access to a base standard of voice and broadband services. This is delivered through the Universal Service Obligation and Universal Service Guarantee.

Technologies and needs are continually changing so as a nation we are still pursuing further improvements in the delivery of services.

Regional Australia is not only a great place to live, it’s a great place to work, it’s a great place to invest and it’s a great place to do business.

But we can’t maximise the contribution the regions can deliver without good telecommunications services.

Today I want to tell you a little about my committee, what we will be looking at, how the process will work, and importantly how you as Local Government leaders can contribute.

The committee is composed of a combination of technical experts and people with extensive experience in the use and application of telecommunications services in commercial, regulatory and community settings.

I myself was a Minister and Assistant Minister in the Abbott and Turnbull Governments and as Shadow Minister for Regional Communications I developed the first Mobile Blackspots policy.

We have Kristy Sparrow, a Queensland grazier, co-founder of Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Remote Australia, community advocate, and hands-on rural consumer

Sue Middleton, a WA farmer and consultant, community advocate, and member of the Board of the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal

Hugh Bradlow, President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering and one of Australia’s leading telecommunications technologists and:

Michael Cosgrave, one of Australia’s leading telecommunications officials for over 20 years at the ACCC, prior to his retirement.

With regard to what we will examine, the terms of reference are wide ranging. 

The committee has been asked to consider the impact of government policies and programs on improving connectivity, competition and digital literacy in regional, rural and remote areas. We will examine the rollout of the NBN, the Mobile Blackspots Program, the Regional Connectivity Program and the Regional Tech Hub.

I would like to note that the Regional Connectivity Program and Regional Tech Hub were direct recommendations from the previous 2018 review which saw an additional $220m in Commonwealth funding invested in regional communications.

We have been asked to look at the impact of Covid-19 on consumer access and usage of broadband and mobile technologies in the regions.

One of the changes that is evident from the impact of Covid-19 is that there appears to be an increased awareness of just what can be achieved in a regional, rural or remote location. In order to maximise outcomes you need good, reliable telecommunications infrastructure.

The committee will also consider emerging technologies, such as LEOSats, that could lead to significant changes in how telco services are delivered.

A significant number of programs under the Regional Connectivity Program are either partnerships with Local Government or involve strong support from Local Government.

For example, The Barcaldine Regional Council working together with NBN Co to upgrade the NBN access technology in the Barcaldine Shire town of Alpha from Sky Muster to Fibre to the Premises.

Also the King Island Council contributing towards a $9.8 million Telstra project to improve digital connectivity for people living on King Island.

This project will upgrade the microwave transmission link between Victoria and King Island, increasing the available capacity to the island by more than six-fold.  

The project also involves the construction of four new Telstra 4G sites and the upgrade of some existing facilities.

These new and upgraded mobile services for residents and businesses will foster digital inclusion and increase opportunities to share King Island with the world.

I’m sure Minister Coulton will have more to say on the Regional Connectivity Program later today.

Programs such as the Mobile Black Spot Program are mature and the committee will be considering options to take this program forward so it continues to provide real benefits for people in regional Australia.

When I developed the first Mobile Black Spot Program policy it was heavily focused on voice. Improving the area of coverage, connectivity along transport links and disaster emergency response were the three pillars I adopted.

Whilst those pillars certainly have not been forgotten, in 2021 matters such as increased use of data, remote monitoring and the Internet of Things are at the forefront of our thinking with regard to this program.

The vexed issue of service reliability and the impact of outages on the functioning of communities and businesses in regional and remote areas will be a strong focus of the committee’s work.

The failure of the telecommunications system in recent natural disasters meant not only a breakdown in contact between individuals and emergency services but also a breakdown in the payments system. People could not purchase petrol to leave a disaster area for example.

Additionally, we will be seeking to explore if the statistics in the endless reports and spreadsheets relating to service reliability match the lived experience of those in the bush.

The review will be conducted through extensive consultation. We will be seeking submissions from regional Australians as to where we are at, the problems that exist and how we can make improvements.

And that’s where you can assist - no-one knows their communities better than Local Government.

We need to hear from those who represent communities across regional Australia.

 We have limited opportunities to meet with some of you today.  As well as myself, three other members of the Committee are in attendance.

Public consultation is a vital part of the Regional Telecommunications Review. We are required by our terms of reference to consult widely and we are currently planning an extensive program of visits to regional and remote Australia – to hear from people where they live and to assess the state of play on the ground.

We clearly can’t get to everyone so I would be encouraging you to make a submission to the review.

A discussion paper will be on our web site at shortly. Regional communities and organisations will have an opportunity to participate through the submission process.

You can also email our secretariat if you have any questions about the Review.

The purpose of this review is not to produce a report that gathers dust. The 2018 review made a range of recommendations that have been adopted, funded through the budget process and implemented.

This Committee aims to have that process continue.

We will be looking at whether changes are required to existing Government policies and programs to ensure they continue to be effective and fit for purpose.

We will also be examining what policy settings might be needed to support more rapid rollout of and investment in new technologies.

And we will be looking at ways in which improvements in digital connectivity could support the Government’s decentralization agenda and the Government’s goal to further develop Northern Australia.

The committee is required to deliver its report to Government by the end of the year

On behalf of the Committee, we look forward to working with members of ALGA over the course of the review.

In conclusion if we are to maximize contribution that regional, rural and remote Australia can make to the Australian economy, optimize service delivery, and strengthen communities we must have affordable, reliable communications services.

You can assist us in that process by participating in the review.

The Hon Luke Hartsuyker
20 June 2021, National Convention Centre, Canberra ACT