Connectivity boost

Friday October 27, 2023

THE South Australian Forest Products Association (SAFPA) will join forces with the state government to commit funding for a proposed 27 telecommunication towers across the Limestone Coast.

Announced yesterday prior to the government's Country Cabinet meeting, SAFPA announced its financial and in-kind commitment with final details to be confirmed should federal government funding be approved.

The state government committed $5.5m towards the $27.7m project which is expected to add 2400 square kilometres of new 4G coverage to Telstra's current mobile coverage.

Over the past few months, a number of local governments across the Limestone Coast have also committed five per cent of the funding for the towers in their area.

Should the project receive federal funding, Telstra will contribute 25 per cent of the overall cost while the State Government will commit 20 per cent and local councils five per cent, leaving 50 per cent for the federal government contribution.

Naracoorte Lucindale Council was the only council within the region to reject the funding commitment twice.

Member for MacKillop Nick McBride said mobile and internet connectivity was "one of the most necessary services" for Limestone Coast residents and visitors.

He said it was "vitally important" for everyday living, emergency situations and for conducting business.

"The enormity of this investment by all levels of government and Telstra cannot be understated," Mr McBride said.

"This will be a gamechanger for those who live and work in the region, and who contact me, frustrated with the lack of coverage through some parts of my electorate.

"I am so pleased to be part of this collaborative approach and to have helped deliver funding for what is essential infrastructure which will benefit so many in my electorate."

He said it was a "critical project" for the Limestone Coast community and would "increase safety, tourism and the ability to use modern technology" in the farming industries.

SAFPA chairperson Tammy Auld said with the co-investment mobile blackspots would soon be a "thing of the past" with the association excited for the future.

"Better connectivity improves regional equity, drives productivity and increases the resilience of communication services and public safety," Ms Auld said.

"This investment is bridging the gap between metropolitan and regional South Australia, and it will drive economic growth, social equity and ensure everyone in our regions has access to information and digital opportunities.

"For forestry, connectivity and quick access to data will not just improve the productivity levels of forest and timber industries but will drive the next generation of technological advancement, whether that be autonomous vehicles, better mapping our estate, improved fire detection, increased domestic manufacturing or most importantly safer outcomes for our thousands of employees who work in the forests."

She said in regards to the community, connectivity would bring confidence to the region's residents, workers and tourists due to vastly improving their way of life.

"The delivery of this Regional Connectivity Program will be a game-changer for the Limestone Coast region and will make the region a beacon for population and tourism growth as we know people don't go where they cannot get a connection," Ms Auld said.

Telstra regional manager Michael Patterson said the company understood how important mobile coverage was and the safety, economic and social benefits it could help deliver.

"Australia can be a challenging and expensive place to deliver mobile coverage, meaning many locations have limited coverage or are in mobile blackspots," Mr Patterson said.

"Co-investment programs such as this creates opportunities to improve or deliver coverage which may not otherwise be possible, either in the short term or at all."

According to Mr Patterson, the South East proposal was the largest mobile co-investment project ever to be made by the organisation in South Australia and was one of its largest projects nationally.

"Telstra feels the application we submitted in August to the Commonwealth is strong and ambitious and will help deliver significant benefits to the area in a short timeframe," he said.

In regards to SAFPA's contribution, Mr Patterson said having reliable mobile connectivity was an important part of running a business.

"As part of this process we have had letters of support towards this project from the Country Fire Service and a range of industries including fishing, grain, dairy and livestock," he said.

"In particular Telstra acknowledges the encouragement and financial support of the SAFPA and its chief executive Nathan Paine as the more support we receive, the stronger our submission which the Commonwealth is considering will be."

He said the next steps were in the federal government's hands while waiting for its decision.

"With strong commitments and support from the State Government, councils and local industries, we have done all we can do to demonstrate the value and support for this project and hope we are successful," Mr Patterson said.

Member for Mount Gambier Troy Bell said the commitment was a "critical piece" of the overall cost and complemented Telstra, local council and the forestry industries commitment.

"You only have to travel five minutes outside of Mount Gambier or townships heading to Adelaide and you have very poor or no phone coverage," Mr Bell said.

"This is a critical project for our community and will increase safety, tourism and the ability to use modern technology in our farming industries."

Premier Peter Malinauskas - who was in the region for the funding announcement - also praised the overall project and its benefits subject to Federal Government funding alongside Minister for Regional Development Clare Scriven.

The two agreed reliable and high-speed internet and phone coverage was beneficial for vital communication during bushfire season, e-commerce, distance learning and telemedicine as well as local business, education, healthcare and community wellbeing.