The federal government has opened applications for $150 million in connectivity funding under its mobile black spot and regional connectivity grant programs.
The funding includes a $50 million tranche under Round 7 of the mobile black spot program, for handheld mobile coverage to rural, regional and remote locations; and $100 million under Round 3 of the regional connectivity stream for either broadband and/or mobile coverage in eligible locations.
About $22.5 million is destined for infrastructure in First Nations communities, supporting Target 17 of the Closing the Gap initiative, which aims to provide equal digital inclusion by 2026.
Communications minister Michelle Rowland said the grants are open to underserved regions “outside major urban centres” like the Blue Mountains and Adelaide Hills, all the way out to remote communities in Western Australia, central Australia and far north Queensland.
Organisations proposing mobile solutions are encouraged to develop multi-MNO solutions including active sharing proposals.
The announcement coincided with a call from the Productivity Commission for greater transparency into government telecommunications funding decisions.
In its mammoth five-year Advancing Prosperity report [pdf], the commission noted that while governments choose the technologies and locations slated for public investment, “these decisions often lack transparency”.
The report said “governments should improve transparency about how funding is allocated for existing regional digital infrastructure programs, including publishing the reasons for funding decisions and evaluating the outcomes of previous investments”.
The commission also restated its belief that competitive tendering for subsidised services - including the universal service guarantee - should be considered.
“Productivity-enhancing access to low-cost and reliable internet services could be delivered through a more competitive and transparent approach that facilitates market participation by a range of providers, such as through competitive tendering,” the report stated.
“Tenders could be technology-neutral and adapted to different regional and remote community needs (on service outcomes and price), but the approach requires sufficient technological and market development to be feasible.”
A tender mechanism was last trialled in 2001, and failed because “no providers participated in the scheme”.
The commission now believes before a universal service guarantee tender is offered in a particular location, the market should be tested to see if the market is ready for a tender.
“The government should request that the Australian Communications and Media Authority and/or the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission undertake market testing to understand whether it is currently feasible or, if not, when technology improvements and new market entrants would enable a more efficient tender mechanism to be implemented,” the report stated.