The coming 5G mobile network could force 200,000 regional businesses from their wireless internet service providers and onto an inferior National Broadband Network connection, it was revealed at a Senate Estimates hearing last week.
Mobile networks need a range of radio waves, known as spectrum. Telecommunication companies buy the rights to spectrum from the Commonwealth. For example, Telstra has bought the rights to the 1.8GHz spectrum for some of its regional mobile services.
But spectrum is a finite resource and it’s running out. Much is already allocated for TV, existing mobile networks and emergency services.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority will auction off monopoly licences in the 3.6GHz spectrum.
The problem is, the spectrum is being used by wireless internet service providers, which service customers of NBN’s wireless and satellite services.
They offer an alternative for small businesses, local governments and agribusinesses that need higher upload speeds than the NBN offers to suit their large data needs.
5G technology will be available by 2020 and that’s when the rollout can kick-in in urban areas.The WISPs have been granted an extended seven year window to find alternative arrangements by 2025, before access to spectrum switches to the winning bidder.
But the WISPs have nowhere to go. ACMA admitted as much in last week’s Senate Estimates hearing.
“We are very mindful of the concern from the (WISPs) that we have not left much spectrum available in the mid-bands that is suitable for them. That probably is going to have some longer-term solutions, but we are working on them,” said ACMA general manager communications infrastructure Giles Tanner.
Labor’s regional communications spokesman Stephen Jones said the 5G auction would shortchange business.
“The government has no plan to secure the services for the 200,000 customers of the WISPs,” Mr Jones said.
“If no plan is put in place, they’ll be forced onto inferior services that cost more and aren’t designed for business.”
The predicament could be exacerbated by the way the auction allocates spectrum in geographic zones.
Regional Australia is covered by eight large zones - which cover vasts slabs of country outside metropolitan areas.
The 5G network is not expected to offer widespread coverage outside major cities, as the population isn’t dense enough to make it commercially viable for companies to invest in the infrastructure required.
A company that wins the rights to regional spectrum in the auction process won’t be able to kick out WISPs before the 2025 switchover deadline.
But the 5G provider will want to tap the market in large regional centres to recoup the value of their licence as early as possible.
Due to technical requirements, 5G operators will not be able to share spectrum with the WISPs within any given zone, even if their 5G networks only service built up residential areas and the WISPs focused on out-of-town customers.
That means the coming of 5G to a regional town could end the preferred internet services for surrounding businesses.
A spokesman for Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said commercial arrangements are a matter for the affected parties and WISPs can choose not to negotiate or trade with companies over spectrum.