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Demand for change to regional mobile policy growing

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Mobile users in regional areas of Australia are desperate for the Government to improve network quality (Image by Dan Jensen)

The Government is facing increasing calls for change to regional mobile policy and risks winding up with billions in wasted infrastructure investment and high telecommunications charges for decades to come.

In recent months, infrastructure providers including OneWiFi and FSG have provided strong arguments supporting neutral host infrastructure.

Neutral host infrastructure, also known as active sharing, is where more than one carrier operates using the same infrastructure removing the infrastructure duplication that exists in Australia.

Earlier this month, the Police Federation of Australia threw its support behind multi-carrier infrastructure in a statement to the Federal Regional Mobile Infrastructure Inquiry.

There can be nothing worse for people in regional and remote areas when an emergency service employee cannot make a call due to the nearest infrastructure being operated by a carrier other than that used by their employer.

The list of organisations and individuals calling for change is now so extensive that the Government is likely to be forced to act in its current term.

The Australian telecommunications landscape is chaotic and dysfunctional and in coming years without structural change, it could get worse. This means the already high cost of telecommunications will continue to rise.

The large telcos appear to be reluctant to participate collaboratively in neutral host or shared infrastructure opportunities that are now available in several states with co-investment from state governments or their agencies.

The question is, why? It is time for the Government to get the answer into the public domain.

Telstra and TPG Telecom are waiting for their day at the Australian Competition Tribunal in an effort to overturn the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) decision to reject their $1.8 billion regional spectrum and infrastructure sharing arrangement.

The ACCC still considers infrastructure competition in regional and remote areas to be important, but we know it creates expensive infrastructure duplication in areas where customer numbers are low and the costs are passed onto all consumers.

There were other considerations identified by the ACCC, principally that the lack of involvement by Optus would unbalance the telecommunications market in regional and remote areas.

Several years ago, the ACCC decided not to declare domestic roaming in regional and remote areas. The arguments were similar to that used to block the Telstra and TPG Telecom spectrum and infrastructure sharing agreement.

The telecommunications market in regional and remote areas is already unbalanced. The failure to move to a neutral host funding model for new infrastructure through the various black spot programs run at national and state levels exacerbates the problem.

Domestic roaming in regional and remote areas would ensure that all mobile phone users would be able to connect and the regulated roaming pricing would ensure that mobile network operators benefit commensurate with the size of their regional and remote networks.

And whilst we might focus on infrastructure funding, the smart money is on Low Earth Orbit satellites having a major impact on telecommunications in regional and remote areas within five years.

At the end of last year, Optus and LEO satellite provider, Lynk, carried out a test in the Australian outback with standard mobile phones being used to send and receive text messages.

While this demonstration was limited to text messages, it is a harbinger of things to come. It is only a matter of time before competition in the “satellite-direct-to-standard mobile” phone service market becomes a factor that will impact the Australian telecommunications market in regional and remote areas.

At some point, the satellite-direct-to-standard mobile phone is likely to include voice and data services, particularly if the mobile handset vendors are prepared to work with the LEO satellite operators to develop the technologies needed to move beyond text messaging.

The announcement last year that SpaceX StarLink would work with T-Mobile to develop satellite-direct-to-standard mobile phone services. After focusing on developing a text messaging capability, ‘the companies plan to pursue the addition of voice and data coverage’.

In a Twitter post in August last year, Elon Musk stated that the StarLink V2 LEO satellites that are expected to launch later this year with improved satellite-direct-to-standard mobile phone services:

‘Note, connectivity will be 2 to 4 Mbits per cell zone, so will work great for texting and voice calls, but not high bandwidth.’

It is only a matter of time before LEO satellite operators provide a viable approach to using mobile phones in regional and remote areas where infrastructure is not present.

Aggressive pricing by a full mobile phone service LEO satellite operator that invests in the Australian spectrum could undermine the viability of the local telecommunications industry in regional and remote areas.

A national approach to the advent of LEO satellites might move the Australian telecommunications market forward, however, failure to invest in LEOs could see Australian telecommunications companies becoming little more than retailers in coming decades.

Australian ownership of shared infrastructure whether it be fixed, wireless or satellite is vital if we want to maintain a sovereign telecommunications capability.

Mark Gregory is an Associate Professor in the School of Engineering at RMIT University.

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Demand for change to regional mobile policy growing

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