MIL-OSI Australia: Interview with David Eisenhauer, Sounds of the Mountains

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Source: Australian Ministers for Infrastructure and Transport

DAVID EISENHAUER, HOST: Thank you very much for your time this morning Minister, on this pretty grey sky day where we are, and of course, where you are in Canberra as well – it’s certainly Winter time.
 
MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: It is – but I think that all your listeners will be well aware that despite the colder temperatures, we still remember that the Summer bushfires only a few years ago were so intense in your region. It reminds us how important it is to be prepared as we can be for natural disasters, and that includes when it comes to telecommunications.
 
EISENHAUER: And Minister, you were one of the Ministers that came through the region at the time – one of our Members of Parliament who visited the studio – I remember talking to you in the studios here, Michelle, when you came through and it was lovely. We had quite a contingent through that [time] – wasn’t that a show? But didn’t it highlight the fact of how much we rely on our mobile comms?
 
ROWLAND: Absolutely – it can be the difference in a natural disaster between life and death. There is no way to completely inoculate areas against disasters, but we know that there are things we can do to help keep telco services online for longer. Part of that we call boosting telecommunications resilience, and i’m very pleased that recently we were able to announce that hundreds more regional and remote communities are going to have improved network resilience. This is through a program called the Mobile Network Hardening. What it seeks to do is to reduce the risk outages will happen during natural disasters and throughout that response and recovery period.
 
Just to give you some idea, David: some battery backup and power upgrades that help to lift those power reserves by an additional 12 hours can be absolutely the difference between life and death. Upgrading the resilience of clusters of connected base stations – so, that means that if one point goes down there are other points that might not experience an outage, so the signals can still get through – some permanent generators that can have up to five or seven days even of backup power, and also ensuring that we’ve got what we call disaster recovery skids. These are quick types of devices that can help be deployed to restore mobile services to remote areas and they can really be beneficial in that recovery period because, of course, there is the disaster period, but the recovery period very important as well.
 
EISENHAUER: Isn’t that the truth? As we know, there was nearly 90 days of that immediate recovery period. With this program, Minister – we’re talking really local in the region. We’re talking Adelong, Batlow, Rosewood, Tumberumba, Tumut out through the Yass Valley, Mundoonan – all around the region. This is a pretty big investment, a lot of money involved in this?
 
ROWLAND: It certainly is, but it’s absolutely necessary. As you say, this really is local for so many of your listeners – Tumut – you know, all these areas in the Snowy Region and beyond. What it means is that whilst we can never have networks being 100% disaster proof – it’s about reducing that risk during the disaster. It’s a significant investment: over a billion dollars under the Albanese Government’s Better Connectivity Plan. It’s actually funding over 300 projects at a cost of around $14.2 million. But we see this not as a cost: it’s an investment. It’s an investment in building that resilience, but also ensuring the top priority of Government, and that’s to keep Australians safe.
 
EISENHAUER: Minister, is there a program ahead – say, a running sheet of how this is going to roll out over the months ahead?
 
ROWLAND: Well certainly, and I’d be very pleased – through not only myself but also local Member Kristy McBain – to keep you and your listeners updated on that as it rolls out. We’ll also make sure also to take the feedback from your listeners. We know that this is an important investment, but we know also that natural disasters are becoming more prevalent and also more intense in their impact. My Department will continue to monitor that rollout – but I’d be very pleased to keep your listeners updated on how that goes. We are always keen to get feedback on where there might also be the need for additional investment.
 
EISENHAUER: That reminds me, Minister of the [Mobile] Black Spot Program, which has been running for years and years. The Coalition is saying that’s now finished, but that doesn’t sound like it is?
 
ROWLAND: No, that’s not true at all. The Budget Papers need to be read as a whole, not in isolation, and the Budget papers clearly show that the program is being funded through the Better Connectivity Plan – so, the assertion that’s being made is absolutely wrong.
 
I expect that the application process for the next round – Round 8 – will open in the coming months, and I’d like to again invite all of your listeners who have identified sites in their local areas that may need improvements in mobile coverage to contact your local member. Contact your council as well, because this really is one of those projects that requires the input of the telecommunications operators, local councils and the community at large.
 
When this opens again, I’d be very pleased to come on and to let your listeners know what they can do to help that. Just to reiterate, it’s absolutely false that the Mobile Black Spot Program has been cut. The Better Connectivity Plan is a five year funding package. We see this as a really integral part of ensuring that  irrespective of where Australians live, in the regions or in metro areas  that we rely on mobile services, and we should ensure wherever we can that we boost those services.
 
EISENHAUER: Minister, part of this rollout, if you look at it on a grand scale, is making room in the spectrum. As Minister for Communications, you’d be well aware of the shortage of spectrum we have across the country in various forms in different uses. Now, we’re looking at the 3G network and the shutdown of the 3G network coming up August, September, October. In that time, the reports are telling us half a million Aussies are not prepared for the 3G shutdown – that came through on the Daily Mail. That’s not quite correct, is it?
 
ROWLAND: We know that this is a switchover that’s actually going to enable better technology, like 4G and 5G, to be deployed. It’ll increase the speed and the capability of those networks. I want to make it clear the Government supports the switchover, but that there are two issues here.
 
Firstly, it needs to be done in a safer way. Many of your listeners may have handsets that solely rely on 3G networks for their voice calling, and they will have been notified. It will become apparent to them on day one that they need to upgrade their devices. What we’re particularly concerned about is that there’s some 4G handsets that will operate when the switchover occurs – but they’re actually configured by the manufacturer to use 3G for calls to Triple Zero, the Emergency Call Service. So, once the 3G network is shut down entirely, they won’t be able to call Triple Zero. We are very concerned about this. When this came to light in March this year, I moved quickly to establish an industry Working Group so that we could get the message out to people. These are users that predominantly are going to not change over their phone as much as others and probably rely on an existing device. We also know that a lot of them live in your region – some of them might be listening right now.
 
That number has come down as a result of the Working Groups efforts to contact customers – it’s come down from around 740,000 devices to now around 370,000. Now, it’s really encouraging, but we still need to do more because the Telstra and Optus shutdowns are only months away – from 1 September both Telstra and Optus will be switched over. I’d like to do a public service announcement for your listeners to find out if your device is impacted. If you’re a Telstra or Optus customer, you can just text the numeral ‘3’ to the following number ‘3498’ or you can go to the website site which is www.3gclosure.com.au and check that out as well.
 
The second point I’d make, David, is that many of your listeners will be wondering “well, I don’t really get good 3G right now, how can I be certain that I’m going to get good 4G service after the switchover?” Both Optus and Telstra have given undertakings to provide 4G coverage before the closure of the 3G networks, and they’ve indicated their intention that there’ll be no loss of coverage. I want to reassure your listeners we will be monitoring this very closely through my Department because this is absolutely essential to ensure not only this is done in a safe way, but we also have a quality of service when it comes to regional areas and mobile services. We want to make sure that everyone benefits from this switchover.
 
EISENHAUER: As we started our conversation today, Minister, it’s nice to chat and send text messages and all those things, but during emergency, that’s when this stuff really comes to the front and it becomes such a crucial element of keeping people informed in various ways, whether it’s accessing remote weather stations, looking at the fire cameras – we see the forestry rolling out their fire camera network – there’s so many different uses for this technology. It’s a very positive chat today, Minister – thank you.
 
ROWLAND: Always a pleasure. All the best.

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