Call for share bush telco towers

13 Feb, 2017 02:00 AM
Vodafone chief executive officer, Inaki Berroeta (right), talks with Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce in North West New South Wales after switching on one of the telco's new mobile blackspot towers sites.
Vodafone chief executive officer, Inaki Berroeta (right), talks with Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce in North West New South Wales after switching on one of the telco's new mobile blackspot towers sites.

AUSTRALIA's third largest mobile phone service operator is lobbying hard for all carriers to be allowed to share access to existing communications infrastructure in the bush.

Vodafone Hutchison Australia is championing the case for "domestic roaming".

This would enable mobile calls to be relayed through any available rural network in an arrangement similar to when making calls while travelling overseas.

At present Telstra provides the vast majority of regional Australia's mobile coverage, but its service is for its own customers only.

However, Vodafone argues Telstra's extensive coverage (more than 2.4 million square kilometres, via about 8500 transmission sites) invariably uses infrastructure built with considerable government funding support.

It noted the national telco had received $2 billion in direct and indirect subsidies since 2006.

These included universal service obligation (USO) funds covering the cost of providing fixed line services - money which also subsidised Telstra's rural mobile network stronghold.

Optus, too offers a relatively wide rural reach for its customers, although has less infrastructure to relay calls or data outside populated areas.

"Domestic roaming would mean you can use a mobile phone wherever there is coverage, regardless of which provider you are with," said Vodafone chief executive officer, Inaki Berroeta.

"The biggest investor in telecommunications in regional Australia has been the Australian taxpayer.

"We see no reason why all mobile providers can't pay a fee to use existing infrastructure to give more people access to a signal in regional areas.

"The density of population in many parts of Australia makes it impossible to justify multiple investors building infrastructure everywhere."

Mr Berroeta said regulated domestic roaming was accepted by telecommunications companies worldwide and was particularly relevant in countries with similar geographic and regional population challenges to Australia such as Canada, South Africa and New Zealand.

Mr Berroeta said rather than just one carrier's customers using expensive mobile phone towers and related equipment, three, four or more telcos could be channelling more users through the available network, delivering a fair commercial return to Telstra, Optus, Vodafone or any other infrastructure owner.

He saw no reason why telecommunication facilities could not be shared for a fair price in the same way electricity networks, railway lines or port infrastructure was used by various competitors.

Greater access to mobile network infrastructure would open up more customer activity and prompt rival phone carriers to be more competitive with price and service offerings.

More customer traffic would in turn encourage second-tier players like Vodafone to invest in expanding their own infrastructure and technology in the bush.

Mr Berroeta said unfortunately both Telstra and Optus seemed determined to keep a network duopoly in Australia.

They argued sharing infrastructure diluted incentives for all players to invest in further expanding regional mobile services.

However, he said there was no evidence of investment stalling in other countries where domestic roaming options had existed for decades.

Vodafone may not be as prominent in rural markets but it was a serious player in the mobile business.

It claims a mobile customer base similar to its two bigger rivals in the five metropolitan markets supporting 60 per cent of Australia's population.

However, the UK-Hong Kong joint venture says rural service gaps are obvious and it wants the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to listen hard to its solution for bridging the country-city communications availability divide.

"Rather than exploring new possibilities Telstra is comfortable with the way things are and Optus also seems to like the duopoly, even though it doesn't have nearly as much infrastructure in the regional market," Mr Berroeta said.

"Telstra's its extreme dominance has gone too far to self correct – its mobile network is now more than 1.4m square kilometres larger than any other network.

"Unless the ACCC steps in now and declares domestic roaming customers will continue to lose out to Telstra"

Meanwhile, Vodafone plans to roll out about 100 new sites in regional areas this year including building infrastructure in recognised mobile blackspot areas where government support has been guaranteed.

Other telcos are able mount their own equipment on shared towers in black spot program sites.

Vodafone is spending more than $20m on 74 federal government subsidised new mobile black spot sites across rural Australia, but will also use $9m of its own funds to build 32 more regional sites in Queensland, Tasmania, New South Wales and Western Australia.

Mr Berroeta said since 2012 the telco had invested more than $3b in Australia.

Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall

is the national agribusiness writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media


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