Telstra chief executive Andy Penn has labelled accusations his company has abandoned regional Australia as “offensive”, as the Deputy Nationals leader David Littleproud ramped up his war of words with the telco boss.
Mr Littleproud has been scathing in his criticism of Telstra’s services in regional Australia, arguing a lack of investment is “putting lives at risk”.
“There needs to be wholesale reform, not just about landlines, but also their mobile phone telecommunications.
“They’re given $270 million a year to maintain our landlines, and they’re not being maintained.”
The Member for Maranoa, in south-west Queensland, said people in his electorate were going without landline phones for months at a time, due to repair delays.
“I was in Injune last week in the main street and I lost a call because the tower that covers Injune has not been maintained,” he said.
On Wednesday afternoon Mr Penn fired back, branding Mr Littleproud as “all hat and no cattle.”
“Quite frankly, I find Mr Littleproud’s comments offensive,” he told the ABC.
Frustrations in the bush
Brigid Price, who runs a cattle property 70 kilometres north of Injune, said people in the bush didn’t care for the politics.
She said people in her community often shared stories of when there were outages with Telstra services.
“People will quite often say ‘Do you have internet? Is this down?’… and then most of the time people will reply back saying ‘look, no, we’re out’.”
“(It’s) very frustrating.”
Ms Price said her property only received an upgrade to its phone line recently.
“They don’t make any more parts, (they) have to come from Western Australia, and we were constantly months without a telephone.”
She said people in the bush deserved similar services to their city counterparts.
“We do feel let down in that we’re just as entitled to have those great services, to be able to sell our products, to talk to customers, to be able to check in on relatives.”
At the heart of Mr Littleproud’s attack is the Universal Service Guarantee (USG), a safeguard that ensures people receive a baseline level of telecommunications services regardless of their location.
The Deputy Nationals leader said the current deal is outdated, and does not take into account expanded mobile technology being used across the country.
When he has raised the issue with Mr Penn, he said, the response had been “a lot of corporate speak, but not a lot of action”.
“Let’s use some common sense and extend it to the mobile network, to protect that infrastructure as well into the future to protect telecommunications in the bush,” Mr Littleproud said.
“The Australian taxpayer has put a lot of money into mobile phone infrastructure, and now we need the regulation to make sure that everyone is maintaining it — not just the taxpayer, but the telcos as well.”
The Telstra CEO said those discussions had been underway since 2015.
“[The USG] needs to become technology agnostic because, currently, we’re required to provide that service using copper,” he said.
Mr Penn said Mr Littleproud would do well to “stop slinging mud” and allow negotiations to continue.
He did concede repair delays were an ongoing problem, but argued Telstra’s network coverage of 1 million square kilometres presented its challenges.
“We do our best to fix it and to maintain it and get on top of it — I’ll be the first to accept we don’t always get it right.”