The failing government in regional telecommunications

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 argued about poor telecommunications for people living in regional Australia and in many cases this also includes the outskirts of metropolitan cities.

Let’s talk about the broadband network first before discussing the mobile networks.

This problem started to become more prevalent in the mid to late 1990s when we started moving from primarily phone-based telecommunications services to ones that required broadband.

As the first broadband services began to emerge in towns and cities, it quickly became apparent that the rest of Australia was lagging behind. The Howard government had failed when it privatized Telstra to solve this problem, so Telstra did not find itself forced to deploy proper broadband outside of areas where it received a good return on investment and since then we lived with this bad policy. results.

In the early 2000s, the issue of better broadband in regional areas was championed by the National Party. But “the bush” lost its support when the National Party joined the Liberal government in its policy of killing the NBN. This was such a shame and a serious setback for broadband in the bush, unfortunately simply for political reasons only.

With the NBN now largely based on inferior infrastructure, there was little hope for improved regional telecommunications services. NBN’s original plan was to provide a fiber optic network to 94% of the population – that would have made a huge difference. Regions now have a mix of infrastructure largely based on copper and fiber to the node, supplemented by fixed wireless and satellite services. None of this really cuts it.

Then we have mobile services. The situation here is even more complex because mobile technology uses radio spectrum and there are simply a series of physical limitations that allow this technology to provide the coverage and capacity to deliver good quality broadband services. Over 98% of mobile phone usage is data, so you need good coverage and quality to be able to use a smartphone in regional areas.

For decades I have argued that one of the solutions should be infrastructure sharing in regional areas. It just doesn’t make sense in areas where you’re so reliant on mobile coverage that you might have had access to it if you could just use the services of one of the other carriers. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has conducted numerous inquiries into this issue, but each time concluded that it would be better not to regulate mobile roaming as it would negatively affect infrastructure investment mobiles in regional Australia.

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That may be true, but what is the other solution? After decades of government black spot investment, the problem remains. I am only talking about regulating the sharing of mobile infrastructure in areas where there is little or no commercial interest in investing in such infrastructure. I don’t see how this kind of limited regulation would stop overall national investments in mobile infrastructure.

Over the past year, a remarkable group of bipartisan politicians have advocated for regulation to ensure regional Australia enjoys better telecommunications services. The group proposed a series of measures:

  • regional telecommunications fund;
  • upgrade existing ADSL services;
  • targeted concessional NBN services to support low-income households in rural and remote areas of Australia;
  • make mandatory strict performance criteria for fixed and mobile operators, accompanied by heavy fines;
  • legislate on telecommunications as an essential service; and
  • the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to monitor the quality of mobile services in the region.

The group aims to introduce a private member’s bill that would finally see the regional telecommunications situation more seriously addressed.

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

Paul Budde is a freelance columnist in Australia 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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