Infrastructure Analysis

Government failing in regional telecommunications

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Communications Minister Paul Fletcher needs to do more in improving telecommunications within regional areas (Image by Dan Jensen)

The Federal Government has dropped the ball when it comes to NBN and mobile communications in regional Australia, writes Paul Budde.

FOR DECADES, we have been arguing about poor telecommunications for people that are living in regional Australia and in many cases, this includes the fringes of the metropolitan cities as well. 

Let’s first discuss the broadband network before we address the mobile networks. 

This issue started to become more prevalent in the mid-to-late 1990s when we started to move from telecommunications services mainly based on telephony to ones that required broadband.  

While the initial broadband services started to emerge in the towns and cities, it rapidly became clear that the rest of Australia was staying behind. The Howard Government had failed when it privatised Telstra to address this issue, so Telstra didn’t find itself obliged to roll out proper broadband outside the areas where it received a good return on its investment and ever since, we have lived with this bad policy outcome. 

In the early 2000s, the issue for better broadband in regional areas was championed by the National Party. But “the bush” lost their support when the National Party joined the Liberal Government in their policy to kill the NBN. That was a real pity and a serious setback for broadband in the bush, sadly simply for political reasons only. 

With the NBN now largely being based on an inferior infrastructure, there was little hope for an improvement in regional telecommunications services. The original NBN plan was to deliver a fibre network to 94 per cent of the population — this would have made an enormous difference. Now the regions have a mixture of largely copper-based and fibre to the node infrastructure supplemented by fixed-wireless and satellite services. None of this really cuts it. 

Next, we have the mobile services. The situation here is even more complex as the mobile technology uses radio spectrum and there is simply a range of physical limitations that allows this technology to provide the coverage and the capacity to deliver good quality broadband services. Over 98 per cent of mobile phone usage is data so you do need good coverage and good quality to be able to use a smartphone in regional areas. 

For decades, I have argued that one of the solutions would have to be the sharing of infrastructure in regional areas. It simply doesn’t make sense in areas where you are so dependent on mobile coverage that you would have been able to have access if you could just use the services of one of the other operators. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has had numerous inquiries into this issue, but every time concluded that it would be better to not regulate mobile roaming as that would negatively affect mobile infrastructure investments in regional Australia.  

That might be so, but what is the other solution? After decades of black-spot investments from the Government, the problem remains. I am only talking about regulating the sharing of mobile infrastructure in areas where there is no or little commercial interest to invest in such infrastructure. I can’t see that this sort of limited regulation would stop overall national investments in mobile infrastructure.   

Over the last year, a remarkable group of bipartisan politicians has been arguing for regulations to ensure that regional Australia is getting better telecommunications services. The group has suggested a range of measures: 

  • regional telecommunications fund;
  • upgrade existing ADSL services;
  • targeted concessional NBN services to support low-income households in regional and remote Australia;
  • mandating strict performance benchmarks for fixed and mobile telcos with hefty fines attached;
  • legislate telecommunications as essential service; and
  • the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to monitor the quality of mobile services in the region. 

The group aims to present a private members bill that would finally see the regional telecommunications situation be addressed more seriously. 

Let’s see what happens. These issues have now been on the agenda for more than 25 years, so I am not holding my breath yet. 

Paul Budde is an Independent Australia columnist and managing director of Paul Budde Consulting, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy organisation. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulBudde.

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