Cloud over future of payphones in regional Australia

Cloud over future of payphones in regional Australia

The Federal Government has failed to reassure rural Australia that payphones will continue in regional areas with poor mobile phone coverage, after the future of the network was raised in Question Time today by the Federal Member for Mayo Rebekha Sharkie.

Rebekha had asked the Government if it intended to take up a recent Productivity Commission Recommendation to wind back payphones “as soon as possible” and how it would ensure regions with poor mobile phone coverage and unemployed Australians were not worse off.

But Urban Infrastructure Minister Paul Fletcher, answering on behalf of Communications Minister Senator Mitch Fifield, said phone “traffic” was moving from payphones to mobile technology.

“The Government continues to work on its policies in relation to regional communications, particularly the regional Mobile Black Spot Program and through this and the Universal Service Obligation and the other policy directions of the Government, we are continuing to ensure the best possible communication services can be provided in regional Australia,” he said.

Rebekha says the Government’s response is cold comfort for regional areas passed over in the Mobile Black Spot Program and still waiting on the roll-out of Round 2 and the announcement of Round 3.

“This is another example of where the Productivity Commission and the Government make recommendations and decisions that have little regard for the challenges facing regional Australia,” Rebekha said.

“By failing to address my question the Government has passed up the chance to reassure regional communities that the lifeline provided by payphones won’t be taken away until they have adequate coverage.

“The communication divide between regional and metropolitan Australia will spread even wider if the Government doesn’t commit to keeping payphones in mobile blackspots.”

“Winding back” the number of payphones “as soon as possible” was one of the recommendations contained in the Telecommunications Universal Service Obligation Productivity Commission Inquiry Report released in June. 

The report said the $44 million spent by the Government each year on the network could be better spent elsewhere because 99 per cent of households had access to mobile phones.

But Rebekha said the report and the Government were ignoring the reality of poor coverage in regional and remote Australia, including many popular tourist destinations.

“Payphones are a critical form of telecommunication in regional areas,” she said during Question Time.

“Mayo has more than 130 identified mobile black spot sites.

“Vast sections of Kangaroo Island and the Fleurieu have no coverage.

“Unemployed Australians rely on payphones to communicate, particularly with Centrelink and Job Active providers.”

The Government allocated $60 million in Round 2 for 266 new mobile base stations.

South Australia was granted just 20 and Mayo secured two at Parawa and Stokes Bay.

“Ashbourne, a priority black spot site and an election promise, was not included,” Rebekha said.

“I will be lobbying for the Government to continue the program beyond Round 3 to ensure greater equity across regional Australia.”