Expert urges rural regions to make most of digital economy

AUSTRALIANS living in regional areas should take advantage of the digital economy now rather than waiting for the National Broadband Network to come to town, a telecommunications expert said on Thursday.

A member of the Regional Telecommunications Independent Review Committee, broadband expert Robin Eckermann, said while the fixed fibre network was an important part of Australia's digital future, the role of mobile telecommunications was more important in regional Australia.

He sat on the review committee last year reporting on what needed to be done to improve regional communications.

During the review's consultations, the issue of adequate mobile voice and broadband services was raised in every regional meeting and in about two-thirds of the submissions the committee received.

In its report on the review released earlier this year, the committee said it accepted there were "commercial limits" to expanding the regional mobile network, but it was "equally clear there is strong unmet demand in regional Australia" for such an expansion.

"The committee strongly believes that increased priority should be given to expanding the mobile coverage footprint in parts of regional Australia where it is not commercial to do so," the report reads.

"There is an opportunity for all levels of government and local communities to work in partnership with carriers to extend the mobile network."

The Federal Government response to the review also noted the emphasis on the need for better regional mobile coverage, as well as the need for the NBN.

But Mr Eckermann said during the consultations, many regional Australians said they were essentially waiting for the NBN to "come to town" before they were prepared to dive in to the digital economy.

"The digital economy has been evolving for at least 15 years and anyone who hasn't yet discovered it has already missed the boat.

"It's a global phenomenon, and it will continue to develop with or without the NBN in Australia."

Mr Eckermann told the conference the two pillars of the digital economy were fixed access, or the hard infrastructure; and mobile access - which was the most essential part for regional and remote areas.

While regional Australians needed to learn more about the opportunities already available, much needed to be done to improve mobile coverage outside the major cities.

Mr Eckermann said a concept which had helped build more than 100 new communications towers in Western Australia, under that state's Royalties for Regions program could be adopted elsewhere.

But he said the program had given the tenders to Telstra, which he said further entrenched the company's monopoly, and regional consumers would be better served by an expanded regulated, state-owned telecommunications network.

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