Those living in Australia’s major cities have access to three world-class mobile networks and the advantages of strong competition. This competition has benefited many consumers, with data inclusions significantly increasing over the past few years. Competition has also driven innovation, lowered prices and improved services for all consumers. However, many Australians living in regional and rural areas don’t have access to reliable mobile services, or don’t have a choice of provider.
Australia is a large country with low population density in many places. Approximately one third of Australia’s population live in regional and rural Australia. Of these, 45 percent live in small country towns, while another 10 percent live in remote or very remote areas. The cost to build and maintain mobile sites in these areas is substantially higher than in metropolitan areas, with a smaller return on investment for mobile network operators. As a result, it is simply not economically viable to build more than one mobile network in many rural and remote areas.
In response, the Australian Government introduced the Mobile Black Spot Program to help address thousands of mobile coverage black spots in rural and regional areas. To date, the government has announced four rounds of funding and co-funding with mobile network operators on almost 900 new sites across Australia. Vodafone is rolling out 75 sites under the Mobile Black Spot Program, and we continue to support the objectives of the Program, which are to increase coverage and competition in regional areas.
While the Mobile Black Spot Program has increased mobile coverage for regional communities, it has largely been a missed opportunity in terms of delivering choice and cost savings via infrastructure sharing. The end result is a patchwork of mobile coverage delivered by the three mobile network operators.
As each site is usually built by only one network operator, only customers of that operator benefit from the improved coverage that new site provides. While the Program does give operators the opportunity to install their antennas and electronic equipment on other operators’ towers, this process (called ‘co-location’) has not worked in practice. In fact, not one of Telstra’s 429 round one funded towers have another mobile carrier’s equipment installed on them.
Co-location is the least efficient form of infrastructure sharing, whereby everything except the physical tower itself is duplicated. This means installing two or three sets of antennas and electronic equipment on each tower as well as duplicating transmission and power to the site. The best approach which maximises the impact of scarce taxpayer funds would see all network operators co-building sites and sharing antennas, electronic equipment, transmission, power and even spectrum.
Co-building arrangements are already in place in a number of countries to deliver coverage and choice to the greatest number of people. In New Zealand, Vodafone is part of the Rural Connectivity Group, which was appointed by the government to provide 4G and wireless broadband coverage to rural and regional New Zealand. The entity – a partnership between New Zealand’s three mobile operators; Vodafone, Spark and 2degrees – is building over 400 new mobile sites with funding provided by both the New Zealand government and mobile network operators.
All three network operators are sharing antennas, electronic equipment, transmission and power.
Each operator owns a third of the capacity from each site, which means they are competing at the retailer level over a single network.
Australian taxpayers are the biggest investors in regional telecommunications networks and there is a strong argument for sites built under the Mobile Black Spot Program to be accessible to customers of all three network operators. This idea was proposed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in their ‘Communications Sector Market Study’ draft report which highlighted that improved infrastructure sharing would increase competition as well as increase the economic viability of expansion into rural and remote areas.
Unfortunately, this measure has not been adopted by the Australian Government. But luckily, you can help. If you agree with New Zealand’s innovative approach to improving regional telecommunications, contact your local MP and fight for change.
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