Communications deal needs federal funding to come to fruition for Blackall-Tambo

Clear skies: Blackall-Tambo mayor Andrew Martin is looking forward to the day when, rather than searching for a signal, he can operate his business "in the cloud".
Clear skies: Blackall-Tambo mayor Andrew Martin is looking forward to the day when, rather than searching for a signal, he can operate his business "in the cloud".

Residents of the Blackall-Tambo region are on the cusp of a technological shake-up its leaders say will be the envy of regional communities around Australia.

An exhaustive search by the region’s mayor for a communications solution to what he described as an “unreliable and expensive” satellite internet service has led to the announcement of a partnership with South Western Wireless for the provision of “superfast internet”.

“The fast backhaul offered by this idea would allow a company as big as BHP to set up here,” mayor Andrew Martin said. “It’s a blueprint for remote communities around the world to have the option of very fast internet.”

Although the bold project is not yet fully funded – it relies on a $500,000 grant from the federal Building Better Regions fund to become reality – Cr Martin is confident it will succeed.

“The applications are all intertwined, every level of government is aware of the other parts,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s a fait accompli but it’s unusual for these sorts of things not to get full support.”

The Blackall-Tambo Regional Council committed $125,000 to the project in its 2017-18 budget, to be used in conjunction with $500,000 from the state government’s Building Our Regions fund.

The scheme uses optic fibre cable at Barcaldine, bypassing Telstra’s fibre running through both Blackall and Tambo, and 24 ‘point to point’ microwave towers to transmit a wireless signal equally around the region.

As well as internet packages, even the most remote resident will be able to choose whether to continue with existing landline services or move to Voice Over Internet Protocols, and possibly use their mobile phone via wifi hotspots.

The 20-year deal will be hosted and maintained by South Western Wireless at no cost to the council.

“For the first time, people living on properties will be waiting for technology to catch up,” Cr Martin said.

The offering doesn’t stop there – not only will government departments, especially emergency services, be offered use of the network for no charge, grey nomads will be able to pull into laybys in the region and access wifi hotspots.

Council’s existing infrastructure will be upgraded, including rebroadcast capability for digital television and radio, UHF repeaters, and even its telephony services.

South Western Wireless CEO, Geoff Peach, described it as the BTRC Metro Area.

“Wifi hotspots and emergency telephones will be deployed at council’s roadside amenities stops to provide communications for travellers and monitoring of equipment at the sites using CCTV and other remote monitoring equipment.

“The big message is, what you can do now is down to your imagination, not your communication”

South Western Wireless CEO, Geoff Peach

The scheme is an opt-in one, meaning people can choose to stay with their SkyMuster retail service provider or Telstra service but Mr Peach expected that 80 per cent of the shire’s residents would say they weren’t happy with their current service.

He is calling on organisations to offer services, based on the speeds and prices on offer.

As a vertically integrated organisation, it’s the subscriptions from users and companies with add-on services that South Western Wireless relies on for its profit.

“People on the network can have their telephones provided by us as well – it’s a whole of communications solution,” Geoff said. “People will be able to import their telephone number – everything is identical from the point of view of the subscriber.”

Geoff described South Western Wireless as the first company to bring in a facility that “deals with the needs of a whole region in one hit”.

“I think this will bring people back, and stop people from leaving,” he said.

Cr Martin has similar high hopes. He used the example of rural businesses not being able to use a custom-designed world-acclaimed accounting package on current internet systems, and shifting their businesses elsewhere.

“People are currently paying $90 a month for internet that’s sometimes unusable.”

Geoff expected they would start deploying infrastructure before the middle of August and hoped to have the first dozen of 24 towers in operation before Christmas.

Ongoing tower maintenance will be provided by South Western Wireless.

Two other councils have already asked for a similar deal for their communities.