Australia's mobile black spot program was a partisan money hole

Vodafone and Telstra paid to consolidate - not extend - coverage

One in five new mobile phone towers built with Australian government money did more for telcos than for coverage-craving folk living in regional areas.

That's the conclusion of the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), which has assessed the government's Mobile Black Spot Program.

Funded to the tune of AU$385 million (divided between Canberra and the states), the government program nominated Telstra and Vodafone to build or upgrade 499 base stations.

The ANAO notes that by the time the federal election was held in July, the total commonwealth money allocated to the program was $220 million.

The report says while the base stations were touted as expanding mobile phone coverage by “162,000 square kilometres” (to put the big number in context: equivalent to a square a little more than 400 kilometres on each side), the spend didn't achieve that goal.

The report states: “public funding has resulted in substantial consolidation of existing coverage provided by grant applicants, as opposed to extending coverage in new areas — a key objective for the programme.”

Australia's Department of Communications, the report says, didn't force Telstra and Vodafone to prove they were expanding their networks under the program. There was an “absence of a minimum coverage requirement and threshold scores for each criterion enabled lower ranked proposals, with minimal new coverage and competition outcomes, to be selected for funding.”

For its part, the department reckons in spite of the program's name, “extending new coverage is just one of the aims of the program”.

The department also dismissed the ANAO's statement that networks became more consolidated under the program, saying “mobile telecommunications infrastructure being funded through the program also achieves the program’s objective of providing the potential for improved competition.”

Another thing apparently consolidated under the program was the Australian Government's grip on at-risk regional, with only seven per cent of the grants spent in electorates held by the opposition Australian Labor Party. ®

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