Submissions to a regional telecommunications review from across the Riverina detail a noticeable lack of access to broadband and mobile services and a growing need to address this.
On Monday the submissions to the 2021 Regional Telecommunications Review were published, with Communications Minister Paul Fletcher visiting Wagga the following day to discuss regional connectivity in the context of agriculture.
A committee is put together every three years to conduct the review and produce a report for the government about the adequacy of telecommunications in regional, rural and remote Australia.
Reporting back to the government by December 31, the review gives people living in the regions an opportunity to share their views and experiences with the telecommunication services in their area.
The Riverina Joint Organisation [RJO], representing a number of council areas across the region, argue in their submission that local communities have never been more reliant on telecommunication networks following bushfires, floods and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The submission says that telecommunications infrastructure is important not just for health, education, emergency and business needs, but also for maintaining social contact with friends and family during COVID lockdowns.
"...metropolitan areas are well catered for because population density supports investment by the telecommunications' providers, while regional cities are reasonably well provided for within their urban centre," the submission reads.
"However, those living in rural and remote areas, and in NSW that's over 90 [per cent] of the State's landmass, are struggling to obtain consistent, robust coverage."
Members of the RJO believe that future investment in the mobile network should be focused on areas without adequate coverage, also arguing that the replacement 4G network needs to be fully operational before the complete shutdown of 3G - anticipated to cause issues for rural communities.
"Investment programs should target areas where there are identified black spots based on needs such as transport routes, vulnerable communities etc. and not projects that provide the greatest financial advantage to telecommunication carriers," the submission says.
"Until this fundamental change is made rural and remote Australia will be consigned to substandard mobile phone and internet services."
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The submission also argued that "the very residents that are likely to be the most dependent on quality broadband [for telehealth and remote learning, for example] are the ones that are most likely not to have access to it".
Meanwhile, a submission by Coolamon Shire Council says despite the fact 99.5 per cent of the Australian population has mobile services available to them, "the reality is that 0.5 per cent equals 1.3 million people who do not get a mobile service".
The council's general manager Tony Donoghue wrote that Telstra coverage has been declining within the LGA over recent times, with areas having extremely limited or no coverage.
He said that the Shire is currently relying on private carriers to put forward solutions to improve coverage, but argued these companies "are focused on profits and return on investment, and therefore make decisions accordingly...to their own benefit and not to the improvement of access to the broader community needs".
"There must be a more structured approach to identifying areas of need and funding infrastructure to increase coverage," Mr Donoghue added.
When visiting Wagga on Tuesday Minister Fletcher was questioned about the public submissions, saying that "the government absolutely agrees that we need to keep improving telecommunication networks and services in regional and remote Australia".
"That's why, for example, last year we committed $4.5 billion in additional investment by nbn to continue to expand its network coverage," he added.
"In a whole range of ways across nbn, across mobile networks, we've got a range of programs to support the continued improvement in and upgrade of telecommunications networks."
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