Game of phones: Telstra’s regional roaming rage

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 16: Telstra CEO Andy Penn is seen in Culla near Edenhope launching the 100th Mobile Base Station, funded under the Mobile Blackspot Program which is part of Telstra’s regional mobile network on March 16, 2017 in Melbourne, . (Photo by Josh Robenstone/Fairfax Media) Photo: Josh RobenstoneCulla doesn’t have a post office or any shops. It doesn’t even have a pub. But on Thursday morning the regional Victorian township did get a Telstra phone tower.
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It was a big deal for this less-than-a-dot of a township with no fewer than two federal politicians and Telstra’s chief executive Andy Penn on hand to mark the occasion.

Ostensibly this was the launch of the 100th mobile tower built under the federal government’s Mobile Black Spots, which helps explain the presence of the Minister for Regional Communications Fiona Nash and Minister for Veterans’ Affairs (and local Liberal MP) Dan Tehan.

The tower will give, for the first time, the surrounding community and visitors access to Telstra’s 4G network. This single tower will cover about 260 square kilometres. Previously residents relied on Optus’ 3G tower in Harrow, about 15 kilometres away.

Cattle and sheep farmer Anthony Close owns Kurra-Wirra farm which now hosts the new tower. He recently switched from Optus to Telstra and says for the first time he is able to stream Netflix at home.

He wanted to catch up on Suits, a series he started watching while at agricultural college in Melbourne a few years ago.

Another local said her husband noticed the new signals as soon as the tower was activated and will finally be able to make phone calls from home.

This farmer’s rationale – which many city dwellers would take totally for granted – is also at the heart of a major territorial tussle between the nation’s biggest telcos over access to towers like Culla’s.

The milestone offered Telstra an opportunity to push its bush credentials and defend the billions it has invested in the regions as the competition watchdog mulls giving its rivals access to Telstra’s network – and its customers.

It chartered two planes to fly journalists – including from Fairfax Media – from Melbourne and Ballarat into the region for the morning to promote the story. Penn’s pitch

Culla Farmer Anthony Close’s family property Kurra-Wirra is where the 100th Mobile Base Station has been built. Photo: Josh Robenstone

On a paddock next to the new tower Telstra staff set up a marquee, arranged chairs and banners. Tables were stocked with teacups, cakes and biscuits courtesy of the local Pigeon Ponds Tennis Club.

“Our model is that people come to Telstra because they know we have the best network and the best coverage,” Mr Penn told the assembled journalists.

“And we are able to basically make sites that might otherwise not be viable on a standalone basis work, through programs such as the mobile blackspots program … and by virtue of the fact that we can attract more customers because they know we have the best network.”

This is all part of Penn’s pitch to convince the n Competition and Consumer Commission that Telstra is dedicated to building high-quality mobile networks around the country, but only if regulatory settings remain exactly as they are.

More specifically, that opening up mobile networks to domestic roaming would be a terrible idea that will force Telstra to withdraw billions of dollars of investment from regional areas.

The ACCC is currently deciding whether or not to “declare” mobile networks, which would force Telstra, Optus and Vodafone to let other carriers access their entire networks at regulated prices.

In late 2016 Telstra told the ACCC the only reason it builds uneconomical towers in regional towns is so it can boast it has the biggest network, which attracts higher paying country and city customers.

“The reason domestic roaming wouldn’t be a good idea,” Mr Penn argues, “is that it would act as a disincentive for investment. Which would mean programs like the Mobile Black Spots Programs and other sites which we might otherwise be able to invest in would become unviable.” Earnings hit

Telstra currently has an ‘incentive to invest for differentiation’. Photo: Glenn Campbell

The day before the Culla ceremony Goldman Sachs telecommunications analyst Kane Hannan released a note estimating domestic roaming would cost Telstra about $550 million in earnings in a single financial year.

He calculates mobile communications is the single biggest product for Telstra and will contribute about 45 per cent of earnings, or $4.2 billion, in 2017-18. Telstra charges all mobile customers about 15 per cent more than its competitors because of its network size.

Losing the network advantage could cost Telstra about 30 per cent of its business in regional , about 2.3 million subscribers nationally, and would force Telstra to reduce prices to match its competitors, Mr Kane believes.

However, if Telstra does stop investing outside the capital cities, as it has repeatedly threatened will happen, this will save about 51 per cent of capital expenditure on mobile infrastructure.

Or as Mr Penn tells Fairfax Media about the roaming proposal: “It is bad for customers and it is bad for shareholders.”

He added that networks need continual reinvestment and Telstra currently has an “incentive to invest for differentiation”, but roaming would remove that incentive.

For the record, Mr Kane does not think the ACCC will introduce roaming.

A spokesman for the ACCC said it does take the commercial impact of its decisions into consideration. However, its main aim is to promote competition and encourage efficient use of infrastructure.

“We will consider the likely future state of competition in the relevant market, with and without declaration of the service,” the spokesman said. Poor review

Telstra chief executive Andrew Penn in Culla telling journalists Telstra may not participate in the third round of mobile black spot funding if the regulator declares mobile roaming. Photo: Josh Robenstone

Telstra is contributing $165 million towards the towers, the federal government $95 million and the Victorian government about $21 million.

However, the first funding round was subject to a scathing review by the n National Audit Office in September, which found the program beset by “weaknesses” with many sites poorly targeted or pork barrelled into Coalition or politically convenient electorates.

Round two adjusted the criteria and Telstra received funding for 148 towers, Optus 114 towers and Vodafone four.

The audit also found towers awarded in the first round often consolidated existing coverage rather than provided new coverage.

Indeed, at least one bar of Optus coverage was present on Kurra-Wirra Farm, but would probably fade off a few metres down the road. And certainly not be strong enough for streaming video or tracking livestock. Investment continues

(Left to right) Telstra chief executive Andrew Penn, Minister for Regional Communications Senator Fiona Nash, and Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Member for Wannon Dan Tehan. Photo: Josh Robenstone

Both Coalition politicians boasted of the benefits of the MBS program, with Senator Nash saying it fixes a “market failure” to provide coverage.

“From our perspective as the Coalition government it is just so important that we continue to invest even more in rural communications,” she said.

And Mr Tehan boasted his seat of Wannon was awarded 16 towers out of 100 awarded to Victoria. Independent Cathy McGowan’s seat received about 30 towers.

Within the telco industry MBSP is controversial because it forces regional consumers to switch to the company which receives funding for the new towers, as the residents of Culla are currently doing.

Or as Mr Penn said on Thursday: “It’s basically a service that if people want to take advantage of they are going to have to have a [mobile] plan with someone and Telstra is the company that has actually put the money into the investment so that’s Telstra. There isn’t another tower around here by another operator, but I would encourage all operators to make the investments and take advantage of the program.”

While technically Telstra must allow other companies to co-locate on all its towers – particularly those partially built with public money – few towers in the bush have equipment from multiple companies.

Vodafone’s chief strategy officer, Dan Lloyd, says it sometimes finds Telstra hasn’t built enough space for a second or third telco’s equipment and the cost of connecting to the network is too expensive.

“We find it amusing that Telstra is claiming public infrastructure is the answer and co-location is the answer when that same company is doing everything in their power to raise barriers against infrastructure competition and co-location,” Mr Lloyd says.

He is leading Vodafone’s push for the ACCC to declare domestic roaming.

About 44 per cent of the 74 sites Vodafone is building with MBSP funding will have co-location.

A Telstra spokeswoman confirmed it will still build all 577 towers that it was awarded funding for under MBSP rounds one and two but will have to reconsider whether it takes part in the smaller third round if roaming is declared.

“Over the past 10 years, Telstra has enabled co-location in 97 per cent of applications it has received for design and construct,” the spokeswoman said.

“The Mobile Black Spot Program is guided by clear rules on co-location. We have and will continue to offer other network operators the opportunity to use space on our mobile base station to install their own equipment and offer services to their customers. We’ll also continue to request co-location of our equipment on other operators’ sites so that we can improve coverage for our regional customers.”

Whatever the background battles, the locals at Culla are enormously grateful to now have decent mobile coverage.

A representative of the local Country Fire Authority brought home the importance of a reliable service without any thought of competition or economic efficiencies simply by saying: “It will be great to have reception at the shed to be able to call the crew.”

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Iraq’s Army battled car bombs, drones and mortars to reclaim their second city

The “end is very near” for the Islamic State terror group in its Iraqi heartland of Mosul, according to Brigadier Hugh McAslan, the second-in-command of coalition land forces in the country.
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There were plenty of doubters about the Obama-era strategy of training the Iraqi forces, advising them through the battles while supporting them from the air.

But when Mosul finally falls, as Brigadier McAslan of the New Zealand Army says it will “very soon”, the slowly but patiently-executed plan, which avoided putting foreign combat troops on the ground – save for some secretive special operations soldiers – will be vindicated.

Brigadier McAslan explains how they’ve done it in Mosul. It starts with gathering intelligence on the whereabouts of Islamic State commanders and then killing them in precision strikes, mostly from the air.

The Islamic State were regarded as having strong conventional war fighting abilities, partly because they had some of Saddam Hussein’s former officers and seasoned foreign leaders among their ranks.

But the relentless strikes have degraded their “command and control” – military jargon for leaders directing their forces – leaving them poorly co-ordinated and in particular unable to fight on several fronts at once.

“They do not get any respite. Daesh has replaced them and as quickly as they replace them, we remove them. We identify where they are and target them,” Brigadier McAslan said, using the Arabic name for the group.

“We’ve had a significant impact on that command and control structure. Daesh are under tremendous pressure and they are not able to react to what the Iraqis are putting in front of them in terms of their manoeuvre on the ground”.

The Iraqis, who are being advised by coalition forces in real time as they carry out their operations – including n commandos based close to Mosul – have been “synchronising their assault on numerous axes”, Brigadier McAslan said.

“Certainly what we are absolutely clear about is that Daesh cannot cope when they have to fight on multiple fronts.”

Without sophisticated tactics, the IS fighters have relied heavily on vehicle-borne suicide bombers, mortars and grenade-dropping commercial drones.

The coalition and Iraqi forces have therefore “spent a lot of time and effort” targeting these “critical capabilities” by drawing them out, as the Iraqi ground troops led by the elite counter terrorism and special operations units move in.

“As the Iraqis have advanced, that stimulates the environment, it forces Daesh to make a decision and that exposes them for targeting with our precision coalition fire.

“You see a lot less use of vehicle-borne IEDs [or car bombs], a reduction in the UAVs [or drones] that they were employing, and a reduction in their mortar fire.”

In the case of the drones for instance, coalition forces have various systems for disabling the drones, but they have also captured them to track back to their controllers and then hit those sites with precision strikes.

IS still holds about a quarter of Mosul, including parts of the densely-populated west and the old city, which has narrow roads meaning the Iraqi forces will need to move in on foot and fight house-by-house.

Several hundred thousand civilians are reportedly trapped there and are being used as human shields. Brigadier McAslan acknowledges there have been civilian casualties, though he praises the Iraqis’ efforts to avoid them.

Brigadier McAslan said that “to all intents and purposes, Mosul is now surrounded”.

No more supplies or fighters can get in. Equally the hardcore who remain – reportedly made up mostly of foreigners who are more extreme and cannot melt back into the local population – will make their final stand in western Mosul in a bloody fight to the death.

Asked whether the Iraqis can manage their own security once they’ve driven IS out, Brigadier McAslan said his forces focussed on their assigned mission of destroying the group but added he was “optimistic” given the strides the local forces have made.

Less than three years ago, he said, IS were “at the gates of Baghdad”. Now Iraqi forces are less than a kilometre from Mosul’s Great Mosque of al-Nuri where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced his caliphate.

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Coast and country

359 Wild Duck Road, Mia Mia $950,000 4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, 10 car spaces
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This 40-hectare property has a Fasham-designed house and a smaller complementary guest house. Built to capture views over Wild Duck Creek, the main house has large living areas with a wall of glass opening to a large deck.

Black butt floors in the open-plan living area work well with the timber deck and the unspoiled countryside on show everywhere.

The kitchen is a delight with marble benchtops, a double oven, gas and electric cooker and a large walk-in pantry. Decor is neutral, in tans and white, and the guest house is just under half the size of the main residence.

Pat Rice & Hawkins 9866 5588, Bart O’Sullivan 0408 576 582

6a Minifie Avenue, Anglesea $1.45-$1.55 million 4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, 2 car spaces

Stylishly finished in classic beachy chic, this single-level house is within walking distance to Anglesea’s surf club, river and beaches. A smart grey and white exterior heralds what is inside: polished floorboards, grey and white decor and cute craypot light fittings. Four bedrooms, including a main with en suite, flank the central entrance hall and formal living area and at the back is the large open-plan kitchen, living and dining area that opens to a large deck – and more of those evocative cray pots. The kitchen is new and smart with a grey breakfast bar, stainless steel appliances and metallic pendant lighting.

Agent Great Ocean Properties Anglesea 5263 1100, Ian Lawless 0409 258 792

15 Spindrift Avenue, Flinders 4 bedrooms, 2 bath 2 car spaces $5.5 million-plus

In Flinders’ dress circle, this property has a title to the high tide mark and sits on the clifftop with views from Flinders Pier to Phillip Island – and much in between. Entry from street level is in to what is the upper floor, which contains the large main bedroom, with en suite and walk-in wardrobe, and a great living area – 11 metres long and opening to decks on two sides. The living area adjoins the kitchen and meals area, which also opens to the deck. The lower level has three bedrooms, a bathroom and a large rumpus room in the middle.

Auction at 1pm, on March 26 Kay & Burton 5989 1000, Meg Pell 0403 161 105

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Boom time for the box out the back of Bourke

A curious trend emerged in the half-year reporting season among ‘s television companies. Something worthy of investigation by Detective Humphrey Goodman.
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The media market is used to seeing decline after decline in advertising revenue as viewers turn off the television and switch on their computers and devices.

But in February two results stood out – Prime Television and Southern Cross Media. (The third regional network, WIN Television does not publish any financial results.)

As metro stations like Nine reported a 5.3 per cent decline in television revenue and Ten issued a profit warning, the regional networks appeared to be doing not so badly.

Prime revealed a 7.6 per cent increase in its advertising revenue for the July to December 2016 period, with a profit of $17.4 million. This is a reversal from the first half of the 2015-16 year when Prime reported a 7.7 per cent drop in advertising revenues.

Southern Cross Austereo reported a 15 per cent increase in revenue for its regional television and radio segments.

There do seem to be key differences between ‘s regional and metropolitan audiences, such as taste in shows. Seven’s My Kitchen Rules and Nine’s Married At First Sight do well in both markets, but regional viewers love the ABC’s Death in Paradise – staring Detective Goodman – and Midsummer Murders much more than their city cousins.

The lack of high-speed internet connectivity in regional areas is another difference – video streaming can’t really compete against broadcast television when internet connections are slow or unreliable.

WIN chief executive Andrew Lancaster has a simpler theory. He believes there are fewer distractions in country areas and people have more time at home when their daily commute takes just a few minutes each way.

But there have also been commercial changes that brought about the recent bump in revenues.

Prime’s general manager of sales and marketing, Dave Walker, attributes Prime’s gains to the Rio Olympics and AFL grand final, along with some small adjustments to sales techniques.

Prime has the benefit of being aligned with Seven West Media, which spends millions on the broadcasting rights for live sports like AFL, the n Open and the Olympics. Seven had a 4.6 per cent increase in advertising revenue and affiliate fees during the last half-year period.

“We did a really good job with the Olympic Games back in August in terms of monetising the Games … And we did a great job with the AFL,” Walker tells Fairfax Media.

Prime’s sales teams were more flexible with their advertising packages and signed up a record 12 partners. But there is also a general sense that advertisers are coming back to regional television after moving too quickly to other mediums.

“Some of those advertisers and brands were quick to move to digital and what I sense is that the results were not quite what they expected and they are moving back to TV again,” Walker says.

Even with the roll-out of the national broadband network Walker does not expect to see many changes in viewing habits, even though many of his viewers will, for the first time, be able to stream Netflix, Stan and Amazon movies

“I’m not sure that the speed of the internet will affect what they watch and what they don’t watch,” he says.

Prime’s chief executive, Ian Audsley, played down expectations that the interim growth might continue, telling investors ad revenue is likely to decline in early 2017 and the “regional television advertising markets continue to be challenged by declining audiences and the growing popularity of new and alternative technology platforms,” he told the market on February 24.

Meanwhile Southern Cross Austereo’s results reflect the first full six-month period after it switched network affiliations. In regional Queensland, southern NSW and regional Victoria it now broadcasts Nine’s content rather than Ten’s. (Southern Cross still broadcasts Ten in northern NSW and southern South , but Seven in Tasmania and Darwin).

Southern Cross is the second-biggest media company in with a market capitalisation of $992 million, after Seven West Media with a market cap of $1.05 billion. Southern Cross is larger than Nine, four times bigger than Ten and nearly 10 times the size of Prime.

“We are not noticing anything different in the market,” Southern Cross’ chief sales officer Brian Gallagher told Fairfax Media.

“What is happening is we are doing everything different to the way we used to do things.”

His sales teams now hunt aggressively for brands under-spending in regional areas and uses data and research to convince those brands to increase their spend, he explains.

And unlike Audsley, Gallagher believes the increasing ad spend is a long-term trend, not a blip. “We will drive growth and it will be a rising tide our competitors will benefit from. That’s fine. Regional markets are growing economically, in population size and sophistication ??? [and] national advertisers are under represented in regional [areas] so it’s low-hanging fruit,” he says.

Southern Cross and Nine recently announced they will open 15 new local news services in country areas. Broadcasting local news increases ratings and reach, which attracts more advertisers, he adds.

The latest data from SMI shows that in January 2017 total advertising revenue for the three regional networks was $15.9 million, a 3.4 per cent increase on January 2016. But in February ad revenue dropped again, down 8.4 per cent compared to a year ago, from $17.4 million to $15.9 million. !function(e,t,s,i){var n=”InfogramEmbeds”,o=e.getElementsByTagName(“script”),d=o[0],r=/^http:/.test(e.location)?”http:”:”https:”;if(/^\/{2}/.test(i)&&(i=r+i),window[n]&&window[n].initialized)window[n].process&&window[n].process();else if(!e.getElementById(s)){var a=e.createElement(“script”);a.async=1,,a.src=i,d.parentNode.insertBefore(a,d)}}(document,0,”infogram-async”,”//”);

But this is hardly a return to the good old days. Just two years ago the three regional networks took in $20.4 million in advertising revenue in January.

This is why executives continue to ask the federal government for cuts in their licensing fees. And on Monday the Senate will debate media-reform legislation, which, if passed, would pave the way for takeovers that are currently banned through ownership restrictions.

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ABC boss delivers home truths about the broadcaster

Outgoing ABC Chairman Jim Spigelman.15th March 2017.Photo: Steven Siewert Photo: Steven Siewert
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Each member of the ABC’s audience has a gripe about the public broadcaster – including those who run it.

Managing director Michelle Guthrie has remarked on the ABC’s “peculiar obsession” with the British royal family and comparative lack of interest in Asian culture.

Chairman James Spigelman has his own bugbear.

“I think there’s too much crime in our news,” Spigelman tells Fairfax Media during an interview in his office at ABC’s Ultimo headquarters.

He’d prefer fewer murders and more public policy and foreign affairs.

Last year, former prime minister Paul Keating said: “What you get on the ABC is: ‘A truck has just overturned on the Pacific Highway’.

“The ABC is letting down in terms of news presentation.”

Spigelman says: “I tend to think he’s right. People expect a different kind of taste in subject matter in an ABC bulletin than they get in commercial bulletins.

“But the ‘if it bleeds it leads’ tradition in journalism is very strong.”

Spigelman’s five-year term has been a dramatic period: $250 million in budget cuts, the axing of the ABC’s international broadcasting service, Tony Abbott’s Q&A boycott and the arrival of Guthrie.

Now it’s over. His office is full of packed-up cardboard boxes; his artworks have been pulled off the walls.

It’s not his choice to go, and he’s honest about it.

“If I had been offered a second term I would have accepted,” says the former NSW chief justice and principal private secretary to Gough Whitlam.

“My predecessor wasn’t given a second term and wanted it; I haven’t been given a second term.”

Few prime ministers give up the chance to select their own ABC chair and Malcolm Turnbull is no different – even though he and Spigelman have been close friends for decades.

In between energy policy announcements in Canberra and the Snowy Mountains, Turnbull travelled to Sydney on Wednesday to attend Spigelman’s farewell.

In his speech, Spigelman revealed a secret plot hatched in the final year of the Whitlam government to buy The n newspaper.

Spigelman, then head of the Department of Media, was dispatched to meet Rupert Murdoch to ask whether he would sell the broadsheet to the ABC. Only a handful of people knew of the plan.

It would have been an explosive move – The n was campaigning ferociously against Whitlam and the ABC has no charter responsibilities for print media.

Spigelman remembers the idea was driven by a desire to reduce the concentration of newspaper ownership not to stifle criticism of the government.

Although the paper was bleeding money, Murdoch said no.

In 2013 Spigelman announced a series of external audits to assess the ABC coverage’s for bias. In his speech he said he was concerned ABC journalists – like those elsewhere – were more interested in same-sex marriage than electricity prices.

“I don’t think it’s changed much,” Spigelman says.

“There isn’t as much attention on the issues of the ‘Howard battlers’, working families, people in the suburbs.

“We should be connecting with all segments of the n population.”

On accusations of political bias, he says: “It’s probably true there are a greater number of Labor voters among our journalists than conservative voters. I wouldn’t have thought that’s unrepresentative of journalism across the board.”

He adds: “To say there’s a single perspective on life at the ABC is wrong.

“If you go outside Sydney and Melbourne you find a more conservative approach. Most people criticising the ABC know nothing about the breakfast program, say, in Perth or Adelaide or Brisbane.”

Spigelman says many staff found the audits – which involve paying outsiders to critique the ABC – “ridiculous” but believes they have been useful.

A review of budget coverage prompted the ABC to focus more on policy than politics; the broadcaster’s editorial guidelines were changed after an audit into asylum seeker coverage.

Last September, Employment Minister Michaelia Cash wrote to the ABC saying it was “required to comply” with the government’s workplace bargaining policy, prompting Spigelman to accuse the government of a “fundamental challenge to the independence of the ABC”.

“That was the only occasion in my five years I thought the independence of the ABC was being threatened.

“I said: ‘You can’t give us a direction on what to do’.

“That was the end of the story.”

He’s also critical of the government for its tardiness in appointing board members.

The terms of Fiona Stanley and Jane Bennett expired last June but they have only just been replaced.

“We have made major decisions during that period and it would have been better to have a full complement of directors.

“It’s not as if these things can’t be organised in advance – they just don’t get the attention they deserve until the last moment.”

Spigelman’s biggest legacy will be the appointment of Guthrie, who last week announced a restructure that will see 200 employees leave the ABC.

While conceding Guthrie’s arrival has unsettled some staff, he praises the former News Corp and Google executive as “very dynamic, very focused”.

“Mark Scott had nothing like her range of experience when he came to the job.

“He hadn’t run anything of this scale.”

Spigelman backs Guthrie’s push for more on-screen diversity and to reach out to younger audiences.

“The biggest challenge facing the ABC is how to maintain an older audience used to appointment television and another generation that doesn’t operate in anything like that manner.”

Bidding farewell this week, Spigelman asked staff to remain true to his guiding philosophy for public broadcasting: “The ABC has to treat its audience as citizens, not consumers. As people with rights and duties, not just wants and needs.”

Outgoing ABC Chair James Spigelman on:

A potential ABC/SBS merger: “I’ve never, ever pushed a merger. Others here have. The ABC is big enough. There’s no case for merging SBS radio with the ABC. It performs its particular responsibilities very well.

“I’m not sure what SBS TV is really for any more; it’s not really an ethnic broadcaster, it doesn’t feel like a public broadcaster. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have good programming, it does [but] there are real questions about SBS television that need to be addressed.”

Managing Director Michelle Guthrie: “Not many people know that when Michelle ran Star TV in India she used to be woken up regularly by Sonia Gandhi or Prime Minister Singh complaining [about coverage]. She’ll have no problem dealing with Canberra.”

On political bias: “There are people who underestimate the range of political opinion among journalists as the ABC. It’s worth remembering Tony Abbott hired our chief political correspondent [Mark Simkin] to be his press secretary. Yes we could have more prominent conservatives than Tom Switzer but the Gerard Hendersons of the world will never be happy unless they have their own show.”

On ethnic diversity: “From the very beginning I was talking about diversity on screen – that we look like an anglo-celtic network. I was told how difficult it is to fix but Michelle thinks it’s a problem and is trying to change it.”

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With a $10m splash, will The Block make its money back?

Channel 9 launch their Upfront and Personal content for 2017 at the Star Casino Sydney.Pictured are the Block presenter Shelley Craft and Scott Cam8th November 2016.Photo: Steven Siewert
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The Block: Will and Karlie win and take home $815,000Why relocating a house can be a cheaper optionThe rejuvenation of Port Melbourne starts on The Block

Work has already started on the Elsternwick site chosen for the coming season of The Block, with the project expected to yield the most expensive homes on the reno series yet.

Five period houses are likely earmarked for the 2989-square-metre vacant block at 46 Regent Street, and each could fetch about $3.5 million.

The producers are also taking it up a notch by paying about $4 million more than the previous highest-priced Block site ??? $6.25 million to secure the former Hotel Saville in South Yarra.

Land title documents show a company linked to Channel Nine, with Nine chief executive Hugh Marks listed as one of the directors, forked out $10.34 million for the vacant Elsternwick site, which settled in January. Filming is reportedly due to start in late April.

Julian Cress, co-creator and executive producer of The Block, declined to comment.

A price at auction in the vicinity of $3.5 million would easily leapfrog the highest price paid on the 2016 season finale in Port Melbourne, when the apartment renovated by winners Will Bethune and Karlie Cicero sold for $2.6 million at auction.

Rather than rejuvenating an old building like previous years, contestants this season are likely to renovate a relocated weatherboard home.

Tradesmen have been spotted digging holes and measuring parts of the site.

Setting aside renovation and other costs, the producers are looking to make about $7.16 million from the project this season.

It would match the profit made in Port Melbourne, when five luxury apartments in a former rundown soap factory ??? which cost producers about $5 million ??? netted a total of about $12.05 million at auction.

And the margin would double the $3.6 million made by the Blocktagon apartments.

This year the show will also come with a new set of challenges.

Regent Street was located in the Elsternwick Heritage overlay area, Glen Eira council director of planning and place Ron Torres said, so a planning permit was required to demolish or construct a building.

A plan to open a private boys’ school campus on the vacant site, formerly a low-rise nursing home, was abandoned by the vendor, Yesodei HaTorah College, after community outrage. At a council meeting in 2010, singer and local resident Kate Ceberano argued the proposed school would ruin the neighbourly atmosphere of Elsternwick.

The previous owner, a developer, bought the site with intention to build townhouses, but that plan, too, faced backlash from residents, Biggin and Scottdirector Bill Stavrakis said.

Domain Group data shows the land, which sold for $3 million in 2006 before selling again for $4,785,000 in 2010, tripled in value over the past decade. Nine is likely to have a premium to secure the site. It marks a return to the show’s original premise of home renovation – the last season to feature homes, as opposed to apartments, was in 2013 in Bondi.

Mr Stavrakis said the vacant block would be most suited for period homes, which would involve relocating a property from elsewhere in the state.

Though it was difficult to pinpoint a price range without a plan, he said the renovated houses would be worth about $3.5 million.

“Period homes in Elsternwick are selling for anywhere between $2.5 million and $5 million in the last 12 months,” Mr Stavrakis said, adding that $3.5 million could buy a four to five-bedroom home on about 500 to 650 square metres.

Hodges Caulfieldauctioneer Oren Flamm expects the Elsternwick houses to attract more prospective buyers than the apartments in previous seasons.

Compared with the limited stock of period homes in Elsternwick, he said Port Melbourne and Prahran had a large supply of apartments.

“Elsternwick is a highly sought-after area, it’s very trendy, and the homes that usually yield the best prices are the Victorian period-style homes, renovated to the highest standards,” Mr Flamm added.

In the past, The Block apartments in South Yarra and Port Melbourne have been targeted by owner-occupiers and investors.

Bethune and Cicero’s apartment at 1/164 Ingles Street, Port Melbourne, has recently been leased for $850 a week.

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Riverside property offers winery and lifestyle change

A country lifestyle on the Murrumbidgee River close to Canberra, with a limitless supply of wine makes for a compelling tree change option.
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This magnificent 80-hectare Wallaroo property offers a kilometre of river frontage, a sprawling four-bedroom home, a winery and cafe.

Brindabella Hills Winery offers new owners a wide range of lifestyle and business development opportunities.

Homeowners Faye and Roger Harris, both with science backgrounds, bought the property in 1987 as part of a passion to grow vines.

“It was just sheep grazing country back then, but there was some good soil that could sustain grapes and that’s what we were after,” Faye says.

“We experimented with pinot noir, shiraz, riesling, chardonnay and sangiovese.”

And they had success with their wines earning up to five stars from respected critic, James Halliday.

The house was built first, followed by the 600-square-metre winery in 1989 with Roger as winemaker on the back of an oenology degree. Cellar door sales were later introduced and around 2012 the cafe was opened.

Both businesses are now leased to third parties as the Harrises move toward retirement.

Faye says the property has given them an enviable lifestyle, but they had certainly worked hard to realise their vision.

“It’s been a great place to live. One of our boys still loves to have a fish on the river and catches some big Murray River cod and perch,” she says.

“Business-wise, there are a number of options for a new owner.”

Faye says the winery is a popular event venue for weddings and the function side of the business could definitely be expanded.

There is also potential for bed and breakfast accommodation to be developed.

Mark Johnstone of Ray White Belconnen says the main attraction of the property was two-fold.

“There’s the lifestyle aspect. It’s a great tri-level home with four bedrooms and a study, spacious living areas, all packaged within an aspect that has fabulous views over the river and of the surrounding Brindabella ranges,” he says.

“Then there’s the business aspect with some five hectares under vine that annually produces 15 to 20 tonnes of grapes.”

Johnstone says interest in the unique property has been running high with a variety of potential purchasers.

“It’s got broad appeal. I’ve had enquiries from people in the wine industry, those interested in rural properties, and those who live in the area and love the river frontage,” he says.

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The Melbourne business bringing back one of the ’70s biggest trends

Indoor plants black thumbs can keep aliveHow to decorate and style indoor plantsFive house plants you can’t kill
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Indoor plants, the zeitgeist suggests, are having a moment.

Pots of miniature succulents are sprouting on the tabletops of hipster cafes from Sydney to San Francisco; inner-city twenty-somethings are flocking to terrarium classes to create miniature, glass-encased landscapes of ferns and moss; and a profusion of picture-perfect interiors brimming with lush green foliage is showing up on Instagram and Pinterest.

The humble houseplant is enjoying its biggest revival since the 1970s, and this renewed love for all things leafy has resulted in the creation of design-led businesses, from nurseries to florists and botanical-wares boutiques.

Once such company is Melbourne’s Ivy Muse, created by friends Jacqui Vidal and Alana Langan who are, in many ways, responsible for making leafy greens Insta-worthy.

The n business, started in 2014, produces powder-coated steel plant stands, slip-cast plant pots and other homewares for green thumbs.

Vidal believes that the revival of the indoor plant is being driven by the trend towards high-density living in urban areas. “It’s about making your indoor space feel like home, even if you don’t have an outdoor space or big backyard,” she says.

Langan says the popularity of Scandinavian-style interiors, with their emphasis on neutral colours, clean lines and stripped-back simplicity, is another factor.

“Greenery is a great way to soften a look or a room or a space,” she says. “It also reminds us of our connection to the outdoors.”

Ivy Muse’s plant stands draw inspiration from the mid-century versions often spied in interiors of the 1950s and ’60s, but they are modern interpretations designed with 21st century interiors in mind.

Their silhouettes have a contemporary twist and colour palettes range from neutral black, white and grey to bold shades of electric blue and mustard yellow.

At any given time, the business only offers the current and second-to-current collections, and they seek out collaborations with local artisans such as leather-crafter Jess Cameron-Wootten and glass artist Amanda Dziedzic.

Interior designer Juliette Arent, of Sydney-based firm Arent & Pyke, says a “tumbled pot of trailing succulents”, such as a silver falls or string of pearls, or a large pot to showcase a palm or monstera, add to the mood of a room.

“Just as the architecture influences the interiors, the interior and exterior vistas influence the amount of greenery required,” Arent says.

Trends for certain species such as the fiddle leaf fig come and go, but the appeal of the once humble pot plant transcends the vagaries of fashion.

“I don’t think plants can get over-exposed,” says Langan. “They’re like us – all unique – whether it’s a blemish or how the leaves are configured.”

Verdant shades are popular this year for all aspects of the home.

To contrast lush plants, stylists Heather Nette King and Bree Leech splashed on Dulux’s Army Fatigues (opposite) for the paint company’s 2017 trend report.

Dulux’s colour forecaster Andrea Lucena-Orr says the mid-tone green is adaptable and easy to live with.

“This works beautifully with timbers, rich textiles and natural elements including luscious greenery and contrasting decorative pots,” she says.


Think creatively about the shape of the plant. For example, long, trailing plants such as heart leaf philodendrons or devil’s ivy can be placed up high and trained across the wall along wooden wall dots or framed artworks.

Kitchens are a great place for indoor plants because they generally have a good amount of natural light. Good spots to put plants include the kitchen island and/or open shelving, but if you’re short on space there’s always the top of the fridge.

Bathrooms tend to have smaller windows and, as a consequence, less natural light, making it a difficult environment for many species for indoor plants. Spanish moss or air plants can be a good option – but if you’re really limited in terms of natural light, consider a peace lily.

Put your plants somewhere prominent. You’ll get to enjoy them more and your plants will get better care if you see them regularly.

Plants can do a great job at keeping the air clean in your home. A good rule of thumb is to have at least one plant per 10 square metres of living space.

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Firsts, fiction, and fr-omances

News Review. Lunch with Gabrielle Tozer, young adult author. Photograph by Edwina Pickles. Taken on 8th March 2017. Photo: Edwina PicklesMany people are happy to leave the uncertainty of their teens behind. But award-winning young adult author Gabrielle Tozer – now about to publish her third and most difficult novel – keeps going back for more.
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“It is such a messy exciting time,” she says. “One of the reasons I like young adult fiction so much is that it explores so many firsts.”

“Everything you feel, you feel a thousand times over, and I love that intensity.”

Tozer’s novels cover first jobs, new loves, big decisions, the agony of indecision and uncertainty (Should I stay or go? Does he like me?), peer pressure – and lots of kissing.

“I seem to choose things that I want teenagers to know on another level, without beating them over the head. Themes that let teenagers know who they are. They’re almost reassuring; ‘You are doing great, keep going’,” she says, over lunch at the new waterfront dining precinct at Barangaroo.

Since finishing her second novel, Faking It, Tozer has also opened up about her own problems with anxiety which was diagnosed two years ago.

“It is something that I have had to work on because there was a point after Faking It where I had got myself into such a muddle with anxiety, and my stress, and it was affecting every area of my life, my work, my marriage, and how often I was seeing my friends.”

Now 32, Tozer says she probably suffered from anxiety at high school, where she always pushed herself to do more than she needed. Since her early 20s, undiagnosed anxiety had manifested as stomach pains or a sore jaw, or bursting into tears at the doctor’s.

“It took me multiple times, going back, and nothing really changing for me to finally go, enough is enough … I had to decide: Is this worth it? I wanted to be a writer but at what cost?” she says.

“And I didn’t want to buy into the whole idea of being a tortured artist to create art. I knew many brilliant artists who had functioning work lives and happy marriages. I wanted that too.”

After two years of counselling, and trying different ways to reduce anxiety – such as planning her work ahead and using software to schedule work and play – she is happier, although she still has the occasional “tune-up”.

“I am completely transparent about it because people will see the numbers of books I have coming out, and think, ‘She has got this all under control’, but it has been quite difficult. And I am more than happy to share how I have been getting help,” she says.

Her third young adult book, a “fr-omance” called Remind Me How This Ends, will be in stores in March 27.

The novel is more emotional and darker than the The Intern, her Inky-award winning first novel released in 2014, which is a more tracky-dack daggy than Vogue version of The Devil Wears Prada, and the 2015 sequel, Faking it.

“[Remind Me] was tapping into such personal topics, such as grief and loss and that kind of blurry line between friendship and romance, and not really knowing where you stand.”

It was hard for her to shake the voices of her two characters, Milo and Layla, the two don’t-know-what-to-do-next teens who are stuck in a small country town.

“I was really feeling everything they were feeling,” says Tozer. “I am an emotional person. And I could feel it was getting harder and harder to leave them at the door at the end of a work day. I was finding they were lingering in my mind, one of those weird author things, they were having conversations in my brain and I would have to transcribe into my phone as I was walking to the gym, or at work.”

When we meet for lunch at Muum Maam at Barangaroo, she arrives looking as glamorous as Anne Hathaway’s character Andrea in the film adaption of The Devil Wears Prada, after her transformation from gawky to chic. Wearing a black midriff top and floating skirt (from a highly affordable chain store) with ankle-length books, she looks more glamorous than other office workers out to lunch.

We order crispy pork belly and fried noodles with little regard for the potential for embarrassing spills.

Like her characters, Tozer says she is always “spiling stuff down my front, I can’t make it out of the cinema without choc-top [on my clothes]”.

Tozer doesn’t see herself as a young adult author, but as a storyteller.

She is currently working on a children’s picture book, Peas and Quiet (one of many she has pitched) to be released in June, and a book for children in primary school.

Like many fiction writers, Tozer’s books make up an incomplete jigsaw puzzle of her life. Her protagonists come from rural . Tozer grew up in Wagga, and “loved the regional childhood” . She was a nerd with more enthusiasm than skill for dancing and drama.

Her first job was working in a video store. (She says she has a thing for industries including journalism, videos and books that have been forced by change to reinvent themselves.) Her sister worked in a chicken shop and came home reeking, like Layla in her latest book.

Her parents were “huge readers”, who were tucked up on the couch every night with a book. Like them, she was a voracious reader of anything she could get her hands on, from Roald Dahl, Morris Gleitzman and Margaret Clark.

“I loved the books with kissing,” she says.

The kissing – good, bad and its absence – is a theme in all three books: “Looks like my pash drought would probably continue forever,” says Josie, the intern in her first novel.

So is fashion. ???Tozer has spent most of her adult life working in lifestyle and fashion magazines, yet she claims to have missed the memo when it comes to fashion. Her younger sister was the fashionista. Her addiction was pop culture, and she spent her money buying books, CDs, DVDs including boxed sets of TV series. “I grew up reading Smash Hits and TV Hits, they were my bibles.”

Like her character Josie Browning, Tozer’s outfit for a Dolly job was styled by her younger sister, Jacqui. While she may look chic on the outside, she says she still feels like Josie on the inside.

While Remind Me How It Ends was hard to write, Peas and Quiet, her new children’s book to be published this year, was the most joyful creative process of her career.

“It came from a magical place. I would pitch it as the odd couple in a pea pod, Pip and Pop. They are struggling to get along, they both have annoying habits,” she says. “On reflection, this is my husband and I negotiating how to live in a one-bedroom apartment in Sydney,” she said, adding that the NSW housing crisis made an accidental appearance in the book.

“[The book] is funny and quite outrageous and warm, they drive each other mad. It is a story about friendship and accepting flaws and getting along.”

Remind Me How It Ends also started with friendship. “It started with Milo and Layla’s connection, mainly because it has always been my MO – I have always fallen in love with the boy who was a friend [including my husband],” says Tozer.

For Layla and Milo, the book ends with uncertainty. “It is not always the Disney ending, and that’s okay, because you are 17,” she says.

“I like exploring the idea that people can be perfect for you even if it is for a short period of time. That’s true for people of any age.”

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Bid for Brunswick’s tallest tower with more suburbs building up

Leafy suburbs forced to squeeze in more homesBrunswick: building up and still enjoying 15 minutes of fameBox Hill booms upwards with apartments
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Brunswick will see its tallest apartment complex emerge yet – this time opposite Princes Park – as the hipster postcode joins a string of Melbourne suburbs quickly soaring upwards.

Building could commence this year on a 13-level, 6000-square metre development bound by Park Street, Sydney Road and Brunswick Road (now the site of the Best Western Princes Park Motor Inn) if the proposal is approved on schedule.

It comes as Melbourne’s suburbs continue to grow taller and denser, with apartment towers approved at increasing heights and suburban developers allowed to squeeze more townhouses on a block.

Comprising three buildings with 333 apartments, 699 Park Street is expected to be Brunswick’s tallest apartment tower, at an estimated 42 metres high. The tallest tower under construction is a 14-level, 40.8-metre tower on the corner of Sydney Road and Albert Street.

But developer JWLand says the Princes Park project will be the “polar opposite” of the Albert Street development, and the other investor-focused towers springing up in the suburb, given it will almost exclusively target Brunswick’s hip and cashed up young professionals and families with larger-sized apartments.

“We’re targeting those that are currently living in the area ??? they might be renters but want to buy their first home,” head of development Nick Weeks said. The project will also include a large childcare centre, dining and retail.

Mr Weeks, also behind the once-controversial Tip Top development in Brunswick East, said JWLand was working closely with Moreland Council, which had embraced taller buildings on the site.

“The planning scheme is actually specifically designed to encourage higher density and higher buildings,” he said, adding the design would set the tallest part of the building back from the street.

Last year, the state government knocked back the council’s push for mandatory height controls. Brunswick Residents Network’s Joanna Stanley said the community wanted mandatory limits that did not exceed 10 levels. “Brunswick residents don’t support the 13 and the 14 level heights,” she said.

Ms Stanley said some residents were already concerned about the Park Street project. “We have the Prini Park running track, which is our version of the Tan, and we want to share that amenity without losing it,” she said, adding that she was most concerned about overshadowing and more congestion due to traffic entering and exiting the buildings at peak times.

But it is not just the inner suburbs dealing with height concerns. Apartment towers have spread to outer suburbs such as Ringwood, Bundoora and Bentleigh.

Vanguard is the tallest apartment tower in Malvern, at 17 levels, while Doncaster’s tallest building, Magnolia, is 14 levels.

Towers up to 15 levels have been proposed for Carnegie, while the application of a controversial nine-level Bentleigh project at 277-279 Centre Road will be decided at an upcoming council meeting.

Glen Eira mayor Mary Delahunty said the council had asked the minister for interim height protection in Bentleigh and Carnegie while the council completed structure planning work.

Proposed interim controls varied across the suburbs, up to a discretionary seven-storey height limit in the Carnegie activity centre.

“Overwhelmingly the majority of permits for very tall builds in these centres were granted by VCAT on appeal,” she said. “We remain vigilant in our efforts to have VCAT actually apply our policies and not just take them into consideration.”

Developer Future Estate’s managing director Ben Anderson said the amount of land suitable for high-density development was limited – such as in activity centres, near transport nodes or along main roads.

There would have to be pockets of greater density within existing suburbs – and not just the inner city suburbs – to accommodate huge population growth, he said

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