Russia, Turkey and Iran sign deal to establish Syrian safe zones

Russia, Iran and Turkey on Thursday signed an agreement on setting up four safe zones in Syria that the United Nations described as a promising step to wind down the brutal six-year war.

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The United States however gave an extremely cautious welcome, citing concerns over Iran’s role as a guarantor, even as it expressed hope that the deal could set the stage for a settlement.

Several members of the rebel delegation left the room shouting in protest as the signing ceremony got underway in the Kazakh capital Astana, angry at regime ally Iran, an AFP reporter saw. 

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The plan for the “de-escalation areas” was discussed on Tuesday by US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin during a telephone conversation.

The agreement provides for a ceasefire, a ban on all flights, rapid deliveries of humanitarian aid to the designated areas and the return of refugees.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “encouraged” by the breakthrough. He stressed it will be “crucial to see this agreement actually improve the lives of Syrians.”

Russia and Iran, which back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the war, and Turkey, a supporter of rebel forces, hope to build on a ceasefire deal they reached in December.

The Syrian government and rebel delegations are not signatories to the deal. 

“We are not supporting this agreement. It is an agreement between the three countries,” said Usama Abu Zeid, a rebel spokesman. “We do not at all agree that Iran… is a guarantor of this accord.”

Watch: Trump vows to strike Middle East peace deal

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‘Promising’ step

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, who was in Astana as an observer, described the agreement as “an important, promising, positive step in the right direction” toward de-escalation.

A working group will be set up within two weeks to resolve technical issues and the three countries agreed to set up the four areas by June 4.

The areas include key territory held by anti-Assad forces.

The first zone includes the whole of Idlib province along with certain parts of neighboring Latakia, Aleppo and Hama provinces. 

The second will encompass certain parts in the north of Homs province, and the third will be comprised of some areas of Eastern Ghouta, outside of Damascus. 

The fourth zone will include parts of the Deraa and Quneitra provinces in southern Syria, according to the memorandum seen by AFP.

Watch: Trump and Putin speak on Syria 

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US doubts about Iran

The UN envoy said the deal would be quickly put to the test and that success on the ground could pave the way to a new round of political talks in Geneva later this month.

“There will be a period not longer than two weeks in which all this will be seriously put to the test and we want that test to succeed,” he said.

In Washington, the State Department, which had dispatched an observer to the talks, said it appreciated Russian and Turkish efforts but called into doubt Iran’s role.

“We continue to have concerns about the Astana agreement, including the involvement of Iran as a so-called ‘guarantor’,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

“Iran’s activities in Syria have only contributed to the violence, not stopped it, and Iran’s unquestioning support for the Assad regime has perpetuated the misery of ordinary Syrians.”

“We nonetheless hope that this arrangement can contribute to a de-escalation of violence, end the suffering of the Syrian people, and set the stage for a political settlement of the conflict,” she said. 

Watch: Battle against IS rages in Mosul 

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What monitoring?

Russia’s envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, said the zones would remain in place for six months, a period that could be extended. 

It remained unclear whether there would be any international monitoring of the safe zones.

Guterres said the United Nations will support de-escalation efforts, but he did not specify whether it would have a role in the new set-up.

Putin said Wednesday that ways to monitor the zones would be an issue for separate talks. 

Lavrentiev said Moscow was ready to send observers to the zones. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in comments published Thursday that the plan would solve “50 percent” of the six-year conflict.

Damascus supports the Russian plan, Syrian state news agency SANA reported. 

Syrian rebels said earlier Thursday that they had resumed participation in the talks after having suspended their involvement a day earlier over air strikes against civilians. 

More than 320,000 people have been killed in Syria since the country’s war began with anti-government protests in March 2011. 

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Delta Airlines apologises after family kicked off overbooked flight

In yet another incident that could prove a public relations nightmare for the US airline industry, a California couple is claiming they were kicked off an overbooked Delta flight for refusing to give up their child’s seat.

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The incident unfolded last week as the Schear family of Huntington Beach were flying home from Hawaii to Los Angeles.

In a video of the April 23 confrontation filmed and posted by the couple on YouTube, a flight attendant is overheard asking that they give up a seat occupied by their two-year-old son.

The father, Brian Schear, initially refuses on grounds the seat was paid for but finally relents. He is nonetheless booted off the flight with his wife and two toddlers.

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“This is a federal offense and then you and your wife will be in jail and your kids will be in foster care,” a crew member is overheard telling Schear when he first refuses to disembark.

Delta airlines said in a statement to AFP on Thursday that the company was “sorry for the unfortunate experience” and had reached out to the family to refund their travel and offer compensation.

“Delta’s goal is to always work with customers in an attempt to find solutions to their travel issues,” the statement adds. “That did not happen in this case and we apologize.”

Brian Schear said the family had to scramble to find a hotel room after being kicked off the airplane and paid $2,000 the next day for another flight, this time on United Airlines.

“We never thought it was going to get to the point where they were actually getting us all off the flight,” he told the local CBS television station. 

“As we were leaving the plane, there’s four or five passengers waiting for our seat. The bottom line is, they oversold the flight.”

– Public relations nightmare –

Schear said the seat he was asked to give up had originally been bought for his 18-year-old son Mason, who ended up going home on an earlier flight so the younger child could use it.

“Sir, Mason is not here, so Mason is the one that owns the seat,” a crew member is overheard telling him on the video.

The Delta crew also tries to coax Schear into giving up the seat by telling him that under federal regulations, two-year-old children must sit on an adult’s lap during a flight.

Schear fired back that that argument did not hold up given that the toddler flew out in a separate seat on the way to Hawaii and was doing the same on the way back.

Delta’s website encourages parents to purchase a separate seat for children as does the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“We want you and your children to have the safest, most comfortable flight possible,” the airline’s website states. “For kids under the age of two, we recommend you purchase a seat on the aircraft and use an approved child safety seat.”

The video of the California family’s mishap, which was being widely shared on social media Thursday, follows a number of other incidents that have prompted outrage and proven a public relations fiasco for some of the airlines involved.

The most notable was that of a doctor who was left bloodied after being dragged off an overbooked United Airlines flight last month in Chicago.

Several days later, a Delta passenger was forced off a flight for making an emergency bathroom run while the plane was waiting for take off.

United also made headlines last month after a giant rabbit being flown from Britain to Chicago died while in its care.

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Countries condemn Venezuelan govt violence

Eight Latin American nations have denounced Venezuelan authorities’ “excessive use of force” against civilian protesters after the death toll from anti-government unrest in Venezuela rose to 36.

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Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Paraguay condemned the increase in violence in the oil-producing nation and urged the Venezuelan government to respect human rights of its citizens.

“We condemn the excessive use of force by Venezuelan authorities against civilians who are protesting government measures that affect democratic stability and cause the loss of human life,” they said in a statement from the Mexican government.

The statement comes as a mass of students battled tear gas-throwing police officers in demonstrations across Venezuela’s capital as the two-month-old protest movement showed no signs of letting up.

“We are students, not terrorists!” students chanted as they marched in Caracas on Thursday.

Soldiers bathed hundreds of protesters in tear gas at the Central University of Venezuela, with medics in gas masks attending to students with bloodied faces and limbs.

A 38-year-old police officer died in central state of Carabobo after being shot during a Wednesday protest that had hundreds of thousands of people on the street nationwide, authorities said.

Opposition leaders said 30 were injured in Thursday’s student demonstrations. Overall, more than 1000 have been arrested.

Protesters are demanding immediate presidential elections.

President Nicolas Maduro accused the opposition of attempting a coup and has responded with an initiative to rewrite the constitution.

Venezuelans were also shaken on Thursday after rumours about the health of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.

President Nicolas Maduro’s leftist government, facing a wave of major opposition protests since last month, later issued a short “proof of life” video in which Lopez said he was fine.

Meningococcal a disease of the young

WHAT IS MENINGOCOCCAL DISEASE?

* Meningococcal disease is an acute bacterial infection that causes septicaemia (blood poisoning) and/or meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord)

* It is a medical emergency that can kill within hours if not recognised and treated promptly

* 10 per cent of patients die and around 20 per cent will have permanent disabilities – ranging from sight and hearing problems and loss of fingers or toes

WHO’S AT RISK?

* Babies, children and young adults are most at risk

* Two thirds of cases are children up to the age of 5 years due to their immature immune systems

* Teenagers and young adults from 15 to 24 years are also at higher risk because of their social lifestyles

* Winter and early spring are higher risk times

HOW IS IT SPREAD?

* Meningococcal bacteria is transmitted through mucus via sneezing, coughing, kissing and sharing of food or drinks

* About 20 per cent of people will be carrying these bacteria at any one time without ever becoming ill

* Daycare centres, school camps, parties and nightclubs make it easier for the bacteria to spread

WHAT ARE THE SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS?

* A high fever is usually one of the symptoms, and people are advised not to wait for a purple rash to appear before seeking treatment

* Babies will refuse to feed, cry, become floppy and can arch their body or neck

Common symptoms include:

* Fever (which may not go down with medication)

* Nausea or vomiting

* Lack of energy, tiredness or drowsiness

* Confusion or disorientation

* Dizziness

* Irritability or agitation

* Sore throat

Meningitis Only Symptoms:

* Severe headache

* Stiff neck

* Sensitivity to light

* A rash

Septicaemia Only Symptoms:

* Fever with cold hands and feet

* Muscle or joint pain

* Pain in chest or abdomen

* Pale, grey or blotchy skin

* Rapid breathing

* Diarrhoea

* Rash may start off as a spot, scratch mark or blister

(Source: 长沙夜网,长沙桑拿,

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meningococcal长沙楼凤,长沙夜网,)

Accusations fly as French run-off looms

Allegations of fake news and hacking attempts are dominating the end of France’s tense presidential campaign, as centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right rival Marine Le Pen try to win over voters before Sunday’s run-off.

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Paris prosecutors launched a preliminary investigation on Thursday into whether fake news was being used to influence the voting, as frontrunner Macron and populist Le Pen held their last big campaign events.

There has been intense anxiety in France over the possibility viral misinformation or hackers could influence the vote, as in the 2016 US presidential election.

Those fears have largely failed to materialise.

Then Thursday, Macron’s campaign filed suit against unknown source “X” after Le Pen suggested during their debate on Wednesday that the former banker could have an offshore account.

“I hope we won’t find out you have an offshore account in the Bahamas,” Le Pen said.

She appeared to be referring to two sets of apparent forgeries, published just hours before the TV debate, purporting to show Macron was involved with a Caribbean bank and a firm based on the island of Nevis.

On France Inter radio, Macron blamed Le Pen for spreading “fake news” and said he had never held a bank account “in any tax haven whatsoever”.

In a subsequent twist, Le Pen’s campaign said a far-left hacker was arrested this week and confessed to repeatedly targeting its website.

Le Pen gave a fiery speech in a field in northern France on Thursday, with an emotional appeal to desperate farmers, the jobless and the disillusioned.

Painting herself as the “voice of the people”, she said her rival would continue the painful status quo.

“Don’t let them steal the election,” she warned, summoning voters to join Sunday’s “rendez-vous with history”.

Macron, meanwhile, was on France’s southern edge in the Pyrenees town of Albi, visiting disgruntled factory workers before holding his last rally in which he called on voters from the left and the right to choose his reformist, pro-European platform.

‘I can’t stand up much longer’: Prince Philip makes light of retirement

The Duke of Edinburgh’s decision to step down from public duties has been met with tributes praising his contribution to national life – and a lighthearted quip from Philip himself.

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The Queen’s consort will retire from royal engagements in the autumn after more than 65 years supporting the Queen in her role as head of state and attending events for his own charities and organisations.

Philip saw the funny side of the announcement on Thursday when he met mathematician Sir Michael Atiyah at a reception for members of the Order of Merit at St James’s Palace.

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When Sir Michael, who is 88, said to him: “I’m sorry to hear you’re standing down,” the duke joked: “Well I can’t stand up much longer.”

The Queen’s public schedule will continue as normal but it is understood other members of the royal family will “step up” in support of the monarch.

Despite being 95, Philip’s decision – supported by the Queen and not medically related – came as a surprise and followed a night of frenzied speculation caused by news reports about an “emergency” palace meeting.

An announcement regarding The Duke of Edinburgh. 长沙桑拿,长沙SPA,/SF1bgo68Un pic.twitter长沙桑拿按摩论坛,/TO9mR70xTk

— The Royal Family (@RoyalFamily) May 4, 2017

Prime Minister Theresa May led the tributes to the Queen’s consort, saying he has given the monarch “steadfast support”, while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the duke’s “clear sense of public duty” had inspired people for more than 60 years.

It is understood the Duke had been thinking about stepping down from public duties in the past few months and made the announcement now as his diary for the autumn would have been finalised during this period.

But Buckingham Palace stressed he might decide to attend certain events from time to time.

The Order of Merit was created in 1902 by Edward VII to honour leaders in the arts, sciences, culture and military and is limited to just 24 living members.

Watch: Theresa May comments on Prince Philip

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Members at the event on Thursday included former Australian prime minister John Howard, TV presenter Sir David Attenborough, artist David Hockney, the former Commons speaker Betty Boothroyd and entrepreneur James Dyson.

Outside the palace on Thursday, tourists waited to try to catch a glimpse of the royal couple as they arrived.

Emma Sandvick, 31, from Brisbane in Australia, said: “He deserves to retire from royal duties, he has served his county well. He definitely deserves a break.”

Alan Doyle, 47, a guide with London Tailored Tours, added: “He has supported the Queen, he’s been her rock.”

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We can knock over England in Test: Samoa

Samoa are going into their Pacific Test against Wayne Bennett’s Englishmen with no regards for reputation and adamant they can cause a massive boilover at Campbelltown Stadium on Saturday.

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With the World Cup just under six months away, Toa Samoa have a chance to prove they are no longer minnows of the rugby league world.

Captained by North Queensland premiership winner Antonio Winterstein and having named Brisbane half Anthony Milford, Canberra’s Joey Leilua and a massive pack featuring Junior Paulo, Sam Kasiano and Josh Maguire, they look on paper capable of an upset.

“I’m pretty confident with the boys that we’ve got that we can get the job done,” Winterstein said.

Knocking off England would be the biggest scalp in the history of the world No.5 side.

The closest they have come to upsetting a top-tier nation came during the 2014 Four Nations when they were narrowly defeated by New Zealand (14-12) and England (32-26).

And after making it to the quarter-finals of the 2013 World Cup, they appear to have built nicely ahead of this year’s tournament.

Winterstein speaks effusively of the passion every man in the Samoan 17 has for the jersey and points to their considerable strike power, particularly out wide.

“That’s the vibe in the camp at the moment, they’re hungry,” Winterestein said.

“We know we’ve got a special group of boys that’s put their hands up to represent the jersey and I think if we play to our strengths and use the guys that we’ve got out wide, we can really cause them dramas.

“If we can get them some early ball and let them do their thing, we’ll be pretty hard to beat.”

England will be reliant on their forwards, headlined by Sam Burgess, James Graham and Elliott Whitehead to lay the platform.

With first-choice halves Gareth Widdop and the in-form George Williams missing through injury, Kevin Brown and Luke Gale will lead the side around.

Bennett has chosen former Queensland back-rower Chris McQueen to make his England debut while Australian-born Cronulla forward Chris Heighington will play his first game for England since 2011.

The match will be the headline act of Saturday’s triple header at Campbelltown with Brisbane’s Alex Glenn captaining the Cook Islands against Papua New Guinea and Will Hopoate leading out an experienced Tongan team against an exciting Fiji side.

STATS THAT MATTER

* Samoa has won all three of the Pacific Test matches over the past three years, defeating Fiji in 2014 (32-16) and Tonga in 2015 (18-16) and 2016 (18-6).

* Every member of the Samoan squad has played NRL, with each of them playing at least one match this season.

* England are rated third in the world rankings while Samoa are fifth.

Macquarie shares soar after $2.2bn profit

Macquarie Group chief executive Nicholas Moore’s pay packet swelled to $18.

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7 million in the past year but shareholders are unlikely to complain after a record full-year profit of $2.217 billion.

The financial group’s shares soared to a 10-year high on Friday after an above-expectation profit that Macquarie said it anticipates will be repeated in 2018.

Net profit for the 12 months to March 31 rose 7.5 per cent, earning Mr Moore a $555,000 increase on his remuneration over the previous financial year.

Share-based payments accounted for more than two thirds of his total remuneration.

The company’s strong performance lifted its shares as much as $4.10, or 4.4 per cent, to $96.02 – close to their all-time high of $97 set in May 2007 prior to the global financial crisis.

Net profit from Macquarie’s banking and financial services unit soared 47 per cent to $513 million, with Australian lending and deposits both growing.

The unit’s deposits rose 10 per cent to $44.5 billion and Macquarie’s Australian mortgage portfolio rose one per cent to $28.7 billion – which is about two per cent of the domestic home loan market.

The banking and financial services result also benefited from the sale of Macquarie Life’s risk insurance business, although this was partially offset by a loss from the disposal of its US mortgages portfolio.

The profit contribution from commodities and global markets also rose, by 15 per cent to $971 million, reflecting an increase in investment-related income generated from the sale of investments and a reduction in provisions for impairments.

Overall, the financial group’s second-half profit of $1.167 billion was 11 per cent higher than that of the first half, and 18 per cent up on the prior corresponding period.

“The group remains well positioned, with a strong and diverse global platform and deep expertise across a range of products and asset classes,” Mr Moore said.

“This is built on the foundation of a strong balance sheet, surplus capital, a robust liquidity and funding position and a conservative approach to risk management, which is embedded across all operating groups.”

The group raised its final dividend by 40 cents to $2.80 per share, 45 per cent franked.

At 1432 AEST, Macquarie shares were up $3.13, or 3.4 per cent, at $95.05.

MACQUARIE’S FY FIGURES

* Net profit up 7.5pct to $2.217b

* Revenue up 2.0pct to $10.364b

* Final dividend up 40 cents to $2.80 per share, 45 per cent franked

Jonas elbow hit done and dusted: Hinkley

Port Adelaide coach Ken Hinkley doesn’t expect Tom Jonas to cop any retribution from West Coast players when the defender lines up in Saturday’s AFL clash at Adelaide Oval.

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Jonas was suspended for six matches last year after collecting Andrew Gaff with a crude elbow to the head while the Eagles midfielder was running with the flight of the ball.

Gaff was knocked unconscious by the hit, sparking a huge melee as angry Eagles players bolted in to remonstrate with Jonas.

Jonas copped widespread criticism after the match, with many people labelling the strike as a thug hit.

But Hinkley believes both teams have moved on from the incident.

“No I don’t expect there’d be anything in it from them,” Hinkley replied when asked if he expects Jonas to cop some extra lip.

“I mean, that’s their decision, not ours.

“Tom is a pretty ferocious ball player most of the time, and he made a mistake last year. That’s pretty simple. Done and dusted from Tom.”

West Coast and Port Adelaide sit a win adrift of fourth spot with 4-2 records, making Saturday’s clash a crunch encounter.

Port Adelaide have been bolstered by the return of captain Travis Boak, while the Eagles will give ruckman Nathan Vardy (elbow) and midfielder Liam Duggan (corked thigh) late fitness tests.

If Vardy fails to come up, he’ll be replaced by rookie Fraser McInnes.

West Coast have been battered in the ruck department, with Nic Naitanui (knee), Scott Lycett (knee), and Drew Petrie (hand) battling long-term injuries.

It’s left Jonathan Giles as the lead ruck option, and the Eagles have mostly lost the hit-out battle this year.

Giles and Vardy face a challenge to curb the influence of mobile Power ruckman Paddy Ryder, but Hinkley said it would be unwise to assume his team would simply dominate the area.

“We don’t go in with any of those thoughts. It’s silly,” Hinkley said.

“You never think you’re going to get an advantage in one area or the other.

“Because if you go in thinking it’s going to (fall your way), you might get caught out.”

West Coast have won four of their five matches at Adelaide Oval.

Eagles spearhead Josh Kennedy has booted a combined 12 goals in his past two matches at the venue, and Hinkley knows last year’s Coleman medallist will be hard to stop.

“He’s an unusual one isn’t he. I think he’s only been off the ground twice for the year, which is an amazing number,” HInkley said.

“Hopefully we can limit the damage.”

Telstra gains as roaming rules unchanged

Australia’s competition watchdog has ruled out setting prices to allow Telstra’s competitors to roam on the telco’s regional mobile network, saying there was not enough evidence that regulating access would improve competition.

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Shares in Telstra jumped following the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s decision on Friday.

Those of TPG – the newest entrant to the mobile market – and Hutchison Telecommunications – part owner of the local Vodafone network – slumped in an indication of the impact of the regulator’s decision on smaller players.

The ACCC said in a draft decision that it had decided against declaring a wholesale domestic mobile roaming service, which would have forced Telstra to share its regional mobile network for a fee determined by the regulator.

“There is insufficient evidence to suggest that declaration of a mobile roaming service in regional and rural areas would further lower prices or improve services, given the higher costs in servicing these areas,” ACCC chairman Rod Sims said.

“While a declaration may deliver choice for more consumers, it has the potential to make some consumers worse off.”

The decision marks a win for Telstra and Optus – Australia’s biggest telecommunications companies with about 27 million mobile subscriptions between them – who had opposed any regulation.

Telstra would have been the biggest loser because a change would increase competition and drive down prices, putting pressure on its profitability.

“This is the right decision for the people, businesses and communities of regional Australia because it ensures the industry still has the incentives to invest,” Telstra chief executive Andrew Penn said.

By 1500 AEDT Telstra shares were up 3.9 per cent, haveing been up five per cent earlier in the day.

Vodafone Australia, which had pushed for the regulatory intervention, described the ACCC’s decision as “disappointing” and “a missed opportunity for regional Australia”.

“The telecommunications divide between the cities and regional areas will only continue to widen, as no other operator will be able to close the coverage gap between Telstra and the rest of the industry,” its chief strategy officer Dan Lloyd said in a statement.

Shares in TPG Telecom, which in April announced plans to spend $1.9 billion to build Australia’s fourth mobile network, were down four per cent in afternoon trading, as were Hutchison shares.

Peak communications consumer body ACCAN (Australian Communications Consumer Action Network) welcomed the decision, saying it was unclear whether regulated domestic roaming would result in better mobile coverage and improved competition in regional areas.

The ACCC said it will deliver a final decision by mid-2017 after further consultation with stakeholders and looking at other regulatory and policy measures for regional areas.

“We are looking at five areas where extra things can be done – accessibility to towers, the mobile Black Spot program, spectrum allocation, how consumers can be informed better, and what the presence of NBN (the national broadband network) can do,” Mr Sims said.

He said the regulator would monitor the situation and step in if mobile operators were unable to reach commercial agreements due to competitive reasons.

The ACCC inquiry, the third review in 19 years, was launched in September 2016, with the regulator saying that access to a roaming service would enable mobile companies to provide coverage for customers in areas where they don’t have their own network.