Well another federal budget announcement has come and gone and pundits are still poring over the papers to see what devils lurk in the detail for different groups and sectors. From a pure technology perspective, there wasn’t a lot to get overly excited about and one part to be very disappointed about. The announcement that Mobile Black Spot Program (MBSP) will cease. This program has been effective in delivering improved communications to many people across regional Australia and the hope from the telecommunications sector was that this funding would increase – not cease.

The largest problem for Australia is population density. The latest data shows Australia sits at position 235 in the world with an average of approximately 3.4 people per square kilometre. Delivering mobile communications in any nation is a combination of a number of factors: The finances of that nation; the carriers being private or government owned; how many carriers there are in that nation and whether carriers must share networks but population density is a crucial component. In a nation such as Australia, carriers must ensure they are delivering returns for their shareholders. When a carrier decides to construct an additional tower – at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars – quite rightly their shareholders expect to see that that capital investment will have a reasonable ROI (Return on Investment). If that tower is being constructed in an area that will cover a small number of people, it makes it much harder for the carrier to justify the expense.

Enter the Federal Government MBSP. This was one of the largest ever expansions of mobile coverage in regional Australia with money being announced in three rounds – 2015; 2016 and, unfortunately, the last round this year. By the end of this year, 870 additional mobile phone towers will be rolled out based on these funds. In Round 1 of the program, over 6,000 locations were nominated for improved coverage. Carriers placed bids to receive the funding and showed how they would contribute to the base funding with additional funding of their own to maximise the number of installed towers. It was a great example of government and the private sector co-contributing funds to deliver outcomes for residents. Carriers continually refined and developed ways to deliver more for less and apart from normal 3G/4G towers, carriers started building ‘small cells’ for less money. These cells are 4G data only cells but modern mobiles are able to use VoLTE (Voice over LTE) to allow voice calls to be made over data only cells therefore expanding the coverage even further. Despite various advances in technology, basic physics still starts to demand that we simply need more towers. Signals from modern mobiles prefer line of sight and, in regional areas, apart from the power of the mobiles, the curvature of the earth starts to become an issue. In a relatively flat environment (like most areas in regional Australia) the distance to the horizon formula is 3.57 multiplied by the square root of your height above the ground. So a mobile tower at 50 metres above the ground loses ‘sight’ of the horizon at about 25 kilometres. Assuming that a person 1.7 metres tall is holding a phone rather than having a phone on the ground, that adds another 4.65 kilometres to the equation so a 30 kilometres radius from a tower is a reasonable assumption based on pure line of sight – but there are many other variables in that determine final reception.

Some individuals are finding they have to take the solution into their own hands. Many people in regional Australia are spending around $1,200 on a signal booster at their home or in their car. These are delivering significant results for people with borderline reception and now that MBSP funding has been removed maybe a Government could look at subsidies for these devices. At a house, for example, a booster delivers improved signal by two methods. Height and power. Typically a 21dB directional antenna is installed on a small mast (such as the existing TV antenna mast) on the highest part of a roof. With the height of the house and the mast, this moves the signal above obstructions (trees, other buildings) but it also helps with ‘sight’ over the horizon. With our previous calculation of a phone at ground level ‘seeing’ a tower 30 kilometres away, an antenna placed at 10 metres above the ground can now see a 50 metre tower from a distance of around 37 kilometres. The antenna is plugged into a booster that further enhances the signal by 100dB and a small internal antenna delivers that improved range to users within an approximate radius of 50 metres – enough to cover the entire house and the immediate vicinity. For regional users who might need to go outside and stand on one leg with their tongue hanging to the left to make a call, these boosters perform mini-miracles.

The MBSP has definitely improved mobile reception and carriers along with private companies are continually working on ways to increase coverage. We can only hope that a future budget will deliver even more outcomes for communications in regional Australia.

Mathew Dickerson

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