A series of natural disasters since 2018 and the Covid-19 pandemic have exposed the shortcomings of regional telecommunications networks and services, according to a report tabled yesterday in the Federal Parliament.
The Regional telecommunications report 2021: a radical change in demand was tabled by the Minister of Regionalization, Regional Communications and Regional Education, Senator Bridget McKenzie.
The report notes that in addition to the pandemic, which prioritizes connectivity for remote working, the 2019-2020 east coast bushfires and 2021 floods in eastern Australia highlight the failures of telecommunications networks in the face of a natural disaster.
During the bushfire emergency, mobile networks often failed because power cuts outlasted base station batteries.
And, as noted in a brief from the Macdonald Valley Association, you can’t even rely on Telstra exchanges.
““During power outages, Telstra’s landline telephone (and ADSL internet) services now cease after six to 2 p.m., as Telstra has not maintained a backup generator at the… local exchange,” this submission claims. .
To address reliability and performance issues in the bush, the report calls on the government to introduce ‘escalating fines’ for wholesalers and retailers who fail to meet minimum standards for fixed, mobile, landline-free services. wire and satellite.
Because the services are unreliable, the report says, regional users have multiple services, meaning they spend more than city users to stay connected; and the lack of competition means they have fewer plans and providers to choose from, so they pay a comparative premium for these services.
To address the cost of regional services, the report says the government should require carriers to “zero” data charges for access to federal, state and territorial government services.
The report makes 16 key findings and offers a dozen recommendations.
The conclusions are:
- State and federal governments should improve both coordination and investment, to fix the “patchwork” of technologies currently in place (a notable example is the continued use of Telstra’s high-capacity radio hubs, introduced in the days of ISDN and now so old. are hard to find);
- Provision of telecommunications services falls to local councils and “other regional stakeholders” who lack resources;
- Regional competition and innovation are hampered by a lack of access to backbone fiber and radio spectrum;
- The Universal Service Obligation (USO) should be revised urgently;
- The copper network, in particular, is deteriorating, causing “significant problems” in maintenance and repair;
- Natural disasters that disrupt power and cause network outages reduce access to recovery and support;
- As mobile coverage improves, “extending reliable coverage to priority areas becomes more difficult”;
- NBN Sky Muster users are still “frustrated with insufficient data allocations, high latency and reliability issues”;
- Emerging technologies like Starlink could meet demand, but their performance has not been validated;
- Providers do not adequately address “complex regional user needs” as these users struggle to resolve telecommunications issues;
- These users also need independent advice and better “connectivity knowledge” so they can make informed choices;
- Predictive coverage maps from telecom operators “do not accurately reflect telecom experience in the field”, and the report accuses the industry of “significant misinformation about the availability of telecom services”;
- Services remain expensive for vulnerable users; and
- “Continued engagement with Indigenous Australians in regional, rural and remote communities is needed to address current issues of access, affordability and digital capability.” The report highlights that last-mile infrastructure and community Wi-Fi are critical for Indigenous communities.
Short-termism must end
The report’s recommendations highlight the need for long-term investment and planning at all levels of government (Recommendation 1).
This should include a government commitment to “large-scale, multi-year investments in connectivity” (recommendation 2), including new mobile coverage and additional backbone solutions to improve regional capacity and competition.
The government should also seek to establish a regional telecommunications resilience fund (recommendation 3), to improve network and emergency resilience; as well as additional funding for the strengthening of telecommunications against natural disasters or STAND package.
This should include better coordination between telecom operators, energy suppliers and emergency services, and the government should set standards for “maintenance and emergency preparedness”.
In Recommendation 4, the report suggests the government establish a program to validate emerging technologies like low Earth orbit satellites (like Elon Musk’s Starlink).
In Recommendation 8, in addition to asking the government to review the USO to increase minimum standards for data speeds and peak hour performance, the report states that the USO should be reviewed on an annual basis.
User training and NBN services are covered by the following two recommendations.
The lack of mandatory standards for service, performance, and reliability standards is addressed in Recommendation 7, which suggests increasing fines for providers who fail to meet standards. If implemented, this recommendation would also require telecom operators to publish “real-time” information about network performance.
To help address regional mobile coverage and performance, Recommendation 9 suggests that the government fund a national audit of services and conduct a feasibility study on the deployment of emergency roaming.
The mobile blackspot program should be redesigned to encourage mobile operators to share access infrastructure in regions and remote areas, with the government to fund infrastructure that provides shared access (recommendation 10).
To improve service to Aboriginal communities, the government should continue to implement the National Aboriginal Inclusion Plan; address national agreement on closing gap targets; and support community-based digital inclusion programs, such as InDigiMOB (recommendation 11).
“Free” government services (i.e. removal of data charges, especially on mobile networks) are expected to take place during the current myGov upgrade, and online job services are also expected be introduced (recommendation 12).