Our resources sector needs real-time communications now

The NBN is rarely out of the news but the issue of filling in mobile broadband black spots and its impact on the resources sector needs more attention.

Since the federal election the National Broadband Network has rarely been out of the news, however, the related issue of filling in mobile broadband black spots has received relatively scant attention.

Given its huge potential to add to national productivity, particularly in the mining and oil & gas industries operating in regional and remote parts of Australia, this oversight is regrettable.
 
The lack of focus may be partly due to ignorance of the role that technology plays in making Australia’s resources industries more efficient. In the oil & gas industry, for example, workers in remote locations regularly use ruggedised computing devices like tablets to access centralised information stores and feed updated information back to head office so decisions can be made in real time.

Even without mobile broadband coverage, this is possible with the satellite-linked communications infrastructure companies have installed at larger mine sites and offshore oil & gas platforms.
 
The bigger reason may be that the issue affects relatively few people. Both Telstra and Optus now claim to reach around 99 per cent of the Australian population with 3G or 4G mobile network coverage, delivering relatively high-speed data to smartphones or tablets. Coverage maps reveal, however, that at least 75 per cent of the Australian landmass is not covered by any mobile network. Even in the 25 per cent of areas with some coverage, chances are you’ll need an external antenna or only get service via a single mobile operator.

The bottom line is that if you are working in mining or oil & gas, mobile broadband coverage is likely to be the exception rather than the rule.
 
The lack of this basic communications infrastructure is a drag on productivity and competitiveness. Meanwhile, there are billions of dollars’ worth of projects sitting on the shelf that could become viable again given the right conditions.

Commodity prices are just one side of this equation, development and production costs are the other. And while the cost of labour in Australia is high we can compete with projects in other countries if we use our labour more productively. But to keep people employed in the resources industries, we need the infrastructure to provide instantaneous communications across all facets of operations, wherever they happen to be.
 
Amongst IFS’s own customer base there are several companies looking to deploy mobile solutions to give them the productivity they need to secure investment in new projects. Mobile devices with inbuilt GPS can now run business apps for work orders, fault reports, route planning, work force scheduling and optimisation, among many other things.

Real-time communications improve decision making around when assets need to be repaired or replaced, for example, or whether there are too many people on site. Mobile broadband connectivity empowers people to make decisions on the spot, rather than lose days or even weeks before returning to head office.
 
To its credit, the government is aware of the problem. Under its Mobile Coverage Programme it has pledged $100 million – potentially to be matched dollar for dollar by the mobile network providers – to improve mobile phone coverage along major transport routes, in small communities and in locations prone to experiencing natural disasters – with $20 million of this funding set aside under the Mobile Black Spots Project to address unique mobile coverage problems.
 
While this additional investment in mobile broadband communications is welcome, we’re unlikely to see anything built until 2015, at the earliest. And unfortunately the Mobile Coverage Programme doesn’t seem attuned to the needs of the resources industries, despite their need to maintain competitiveness and generate export income for Australia. The $20 million Mobile Black Spots Project, for example, seems most targeted towards the tourism industry.

Recent media coverage has seen discussion about addressing mobile black spots in regions with high seasonal demand, essentially meeting the needs of holiday makers who want their smartphones working, rather than where industry is operating.
 
More can be and needs to be done to speed up the delivery of productive mobile broadband capacity. But the plan to address mobile broadband black spots needs to be delivered sooner and it should be better targeted towards improving Australia’s competitiveness. While tourism has certainly suffered under the weight of a high Australian dollar, it should not be the only industry operating in regional and remote areas to be considered.

The economic benefits that will result from the government’s Mobile Coverage Programme will be significantly less if holiday destinations are favoured over major transport routes and other mobile black spots that are hampering the competitiveness of Australia’s resource industries.

Rob Stummer is the managing director of IFS Australia and New Zealand

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