State government, telcos to build towers and install 'repeaters' to eliminate mobile black spots

GAPSTOP: More mobile phone towers and in-train 'repeaters' aim to provide better mobile coverage. Picture: GLENN DANIELS
GAPSTOP: More mobile phone towers and in-train 'repeaters' aim to provide better mobile coverage. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

EARLIER: In-train devices and more phone towers will be rolled out on regional rail lines in a joint effort from telco giants and the state government to eradicate mobile black spots. 

But one public transport pundit says a series of failed government promises in the past has him wary about the plan.  

Innovation minister Philip Dalidakis will announce today Telstra, Optus and Vodafone have signed an agreement with the state government to build 11 new towers along the Bendigo line and install in-carriage “repeaters” – devices which strengthen mobile phone signals – on trains. 

The plan also applies to Ballarat, Geelong, Traralgon and Seymour lines.     

Telstra area general manager Steve Tinker said customers of his company would have 99 per cent coverage along the regional routes once the infrastructure was in place. 

In-train technology has existed on some European services for about 15 years and Public Transport Users Association regional spokesman Paul Westcott said it was “a pity we are starting so far behind”. 

“You have to be wary because of the history,” he said, accusing both Labor and Coalition governments of dropping the ball on in-train phone reception.  

The inclusion of telco companies was important to blackspot eradication, Mr Westcott said, but expected delays while planning approval for tower construction was approved.

The government first announced its $18 million plan in November, 2015, and Mr Tinker could not commit to a delivery date for the project.

Commuter Anastasia Dellar was preparing to take the train to Melbourne from Bendigo on Monday and said poor mobile service left her no choice but to read a book for the trip’s duration. 

She estimated phone reception was only available for 40 per cent of the two-hour journey.

Better connectivity would encourage people to leave their cars at home and travel by train, Ms Dellar said. 

Bendigo mayor Margaret O’Rourke, a former Telstra employee, said better connectivity could lure in more people to work and live regional Victoria.  

“It’s a really important part of our lifestyle now and people get quite stressed when they have dropouts,” Cr O’Rourke said.

“I know a number of people who commute now like to do some of their work on their train so when they get home they’re with their family.”

Vodafone’s investment to eliminate mobile black spots along Bendigo railways will top $1 million, the telco giant has said. 

Optus have also signed on to finance the black spot project, with a spokesperson from the company saying it was evidence telcos and government could work together.  

Wireless plan to stay in the bin

Wireless internet will not be part of a plan to improve connectivity aboard regional rail services, despite the government committing to improved mobile coverage along the routes. 

The Coalition government promised in 2014 to roll out free Wi-Fi on 75 per cent of V/Line services, a plan that was scrapped when Labor won that year’s election.

The $40 million was included in the 2014-15 state budget.

Innovation minister Philip Dalidakis said yesterday wireless internet was not viable without passing the cost on to passengers. 

“The government would need to subsidise the cost of providing coverage as well as the cost of mobile backhaul on an ongoing and increasing basis,” Mr Dalidakis said.

He said a lack of reliable mobile coverage was another reason Wi-Fi was untenable. 

A plan to build new towers and install in-train repeaters meant commuters could also dial out and SMS, something Wi-Fi would not allow, he said.

Less than 50 per cent of Victoria’s 600-kilometre regional rail network receives mobile coverage.