news The Australian National Audit Office has released a report criticising aspects of the Federal Government’s handling of the Mobile Black Spot Programme.
This $220 million scheme was set up to improve mobile phone coverage and competition in regional and remote Australia via new and upgraded mobile base stations.
The ANAO audit (pdf), tabled in Parliament last week, was given the objective of appraising the effectiveness of the Department of Communications and the Arts’ assessment and selection of base stations for funding under the first round of the Mobile Black Spot Program.
It concluded that the department had established the “key elements” that would be expected to form part of a “competitive, merit-based grants programme” and, in the main, implemented these elements in accordance with the published guidelines.
However, the ANAO also found that:
- The criteria used to assess the merits of proposed base stations did not sufficiently target funding toward the expansion of coverage where none previously existed
- There were not established methodologies to inform the technical and financial assessment of applicant proposals from across Australia
- The department’s ability to measure the overall impact and effectiveness of the
programme and report to stakeholders will be difficult given the absence of a fit for
purpose performance measurement and evaluation framework for the programme.
Furthermore, the ANAO said, while the department considered it had designed the guidelines to achieve maximum value for money, “weaknesses” in some aspects of the guidelines impacted on this outcome.
“In particular, the absence of a minimum coverage requirement and threshold scores for each criterion enabled lower ranked proposals, with minimal new coverage and competition outcomes, to be selected for funding,” the report said.
There was also insufficient attention paid to specific local issues to inform the delivery of future funding rounds.
Labor criticised the allocation of funding following the release of the audit, saying that the government had committed $100 million to round one of the programme to deliver 499 new and upgraded mobile base stations across Australia.
“However, more than 80% of the locations for new mobile phone towers announced are in Liberal or National electorates with less than 7% in electorates held by Labor Members.”
“Clearly, the number one criterion for site selection was politics, not community need,” the opposition party said in a joint statement from Michelle Rowland MP, Shadow Minister For Communications and Stephen Jones MP, Shadow Minister For Regional Communications.
The “most damning finding”, they said, is that the Abbott-Turnbull Government “has been caught funding sites that would have been built by the mobile phone companies anyway”.
Twenty-five per cent of new mobile phone towers funded in round one provided “no new or extended coverage”, Labor said.
The report also criticised the way the programme had been promoted in some areas, saying:
“The department appropriately identified black spots to guide the location of proposed base stations to be funded under the MBSP through its Database of Reported Locations, which listed over 6000 publicly nominated areas with partial, poor and no mobile coverage. The approach taken to promote the programme across targeted electorates was not, however, consistently conducted and this may have had an impact on the distribution of nominations across electorates.”
Labor said its policy on mobile black spots is to place a “far greater emphasis on a fair distribution of funds across a fairer spread of electorates”.
“The ANAO report should be a wake-up call for a Government which has promised the world on fixing mobile black spots but mostly ignored non-Coalition held seats,” the party concluded.