State must do more to close black spots

Question without notice

Making sure emergency management factors shape the Victorian government’s digital black spot roll-out must be a priority in rural areas.

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (11:13): My question is to the Minister for Employment and Minister for Innovation, Medical Research and the Digital Economy, Ms Pulford.

During the 2019–20 bushfires one of the many sets of issues that plagued local communities in northern Victoria were our longstanding, ongoing problems with internet connectivity and mobile reception. Indigo shire’s CEO, Trevor Ierino, spoke about these problems very publicly last year, when he said the lack of mobile service along major roads into and out of Beechworth, for example, made it near impossible for people in high-risk areas to receive even basic alerts, warnings or updates on conditions. So I ask: what actions, if any, are being taken by the state government to ensure that emergency management considerations are regarded as the most critical priority in fixing mobile black spots and internet access problems in Victoria?

Ms PULFORD (Western Victoria—Minister for Employment, Minister for Innovation, Medical Research and the Digital Economy, Minister for Small Business) (11:14): I thank Ms Maxwell for her question, and I thank the community of Bright for welcoming us so warmly. Ms Maxwell’s question is absolutely timely, reflecting on the remarks of the chair of the bushfire recovery committee at our welcome reception last night and the comments made so eloquently by both Claire and the mayor earlier this morning. They each described the fear and uncertainty of smoke and rapidly changing information, being so close as to be able to see flames.

Last night we heard about, ‘Evacuate. No, don’t evacuate. No, go home. Back. Evacuate again’, and one family experienced this five times. Having grown up in a bushfire-prone and indeed impacted area, I can remember well that fear and that anxiety, and of course all anybody wants to know is that they have the most accurate information they can possibly have in the most timely way. So at this regional sitting, which very much came about as a result of discussions in the Parliament about how we can support and hear from our fire-affected communities, this is a very, very important topic.

We have been participating in partnership with the federal government for many years now in the mobile black spot eradication program. Different names, different guises and different scales of funding from time to time, but on each and every occasion the input and indeed the final sign-off prior to the minister’s sign-off occurs from the emergency management commissioner. So there is a process where an assessment is made of where the black spots still are, but the emergency management experts in Victoria play a very, very active role in providing advice about sites.

I can entirely understand the frustrations and completely acknowledge the legitimacy of concerns in this community around mobile coverage. The terrain does make this challenging, and the telecommunications companies from time to time in particular environments find it difficult to install something that will work in the way that the community wants. We have recently funded six new mobile base stations in Indigo shire, and there was consultation with the local community through the identification of those sites. Just for context as well, we are participating with the federal government’s program and NBN satellite services for public wi-fi internet as well.

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (11:17): Thank you, Minister Pulford.

Mr Ierino also suggested last year that the system of choosing locations for mobile black spot funding in Victoria appears to be based more on the commercial interests of telecommunications companies than the emergency management threat. To reinforce that impression I would note that the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions database of potential mobile black spot locations across regional Victoria is not made publicly available, on the basis that it holds commercial-in-confidence data provided under agreement with the mobile carriers. Minister, I therefore ask—this is my supplementary: what changes, if any, will the government be making to improve public awareness and input into decision-making about the areas in Victoria that most need mobile black spot funding?

Ms PULFORD (Western Victoria—Minister for Employment, Minister for Innovation, Medical Research and the Digital Economy, Minister for Small Business) (11:18): I thank Ms Maxwell for her supplementary question. The commercial viability of mobile towers is very much a matter for mobile carriers, but I want to reassure Ms Maxwell and the community that this does not determine Victorian government funding. That is not a factor that is taken into consideration. The carriers are of course important partners because they play such a key role in building and then maintaining the tower and base station infrastructure.

In terms of the publicly available information, carriers do provide public coverage maps, and they are published on the carriers’ websites. For digital plans, the regional digital plans that have been undertaken via regional partnerships over the last three or four years are also publicly released and include an extensive gap analysis, so I think that you will find that the sum of the information that you seek is publicly available.

In terms of our next steps as the Victorian government, there was a very significant funding boost to our digital infrastructure programs in the state budget in November last year—$300 million of the $626 million for mobile connectivity to improve the eradication of black spots as well. We will be extensively consulting with communities in the development— (Time expired)