Telstra has flagged plans to ramp up its 4G coverage to reach 99 per cent of the Australian population if a draft decision by the country’s competition watchdog to reject a wholesale domestic mobile roaming scheme is confirmed.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) took the first step in formally rejecting the plan on 5 May, releasing its draft decision not to declare such a roaming service.
“There is insufficient evidence to suggest that declaration of a mobile roaming service in regional and rural areas would further lower prices or improve services, given the higher costs in servicing these areas,” ACCC chairman, Rod Sims, said.
If a national wholesale domestic mobile roaming service were to be declared, it would allow mobile network users to tap into additional coverage by access infrastructure belonging to other telecommunications providers.
The ACCC launched an inquiry into a mobile roaming service for Australia on 5 September last year, the third such inquiry to be launched by the Commission since 1998.
While the ACCC is calling on submissions on its draft decision, Telstra CEO, Andy Penn, has moved swiftly to capitalise on the ACCC’s provisional stance, flagging plans for the country’s largest telco to boost investment in its national network if the draft decision holds.
“If this decision is confirmed, we will immediately move to expand our 4G coverage to reach 99 per cent of the population by later this year,” Penn told shareholders on 5 May. “It also paves way for ongoing investment in the coming years that would see an additional 1.4 million square kilometres of 4G coverage for regional and rural Australia.
“This means that about 600 base stations will be upgraded from 3G to 4G, giving the Australian population access to world-leading 4G network.
“This draft decision means we are one step closer to being able to get on with this exciting work that will have positive impacts on people who live, work and visit regional areas. If this decision is confirmed, I look forward to Telstra getting on with the job of supporting regional Australia with even more investment,” he said.
Penn said that, through Telstra’s own investment, along with co-investment – likely from the government via initiatives such as the Mobile Black Spot Program, and other partners – the company expects to see up to $1 billion of investment flow to small towns and regional centres across Australia over the next five years.
Among Australia’s other telecommunications players, the proposal to declare a wholesale domestic mobile roaming service represents a way to level the playing among the country’s carriers and carriage service providers.
“The draft decision reinforces the effective monopoly Telstra has across regional Australia and continues to restrict consumer choice,” MyNetFone Group CEO and co-founder, Rene Sugo, said. “However, the decision is not a surprise as the current legislative and regulatory environment in Australia is weighted against consumer choice and innovation in the telco sector.”
Likewise, Vodafone Australia criticised the draft decision, suggesting that it represents a “missed opportunity” for regional Australia.
“It denies the benefits of increased coverage, competition and choice to Australian mobile customers, especially hundreds of thousands of Australians living in regional and rural areas,” the company said in a statement.
At the same time, the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), has supported the draft decision, echoing Telstra’s sentiment that, if such a scheme were to go ahead, it would diminish the incentive for Australian carriers, such as Optus or Vodafone, to invest in infrastructure in rural or regional areas.
“ACCAN is a strong advocate for better mobile coverage and improved competition in regional and rural areas,” said ACCAN CEO, Teresa Corbin. “Consumers and small businesses in regional, rural and remote areas want additional coverage where they live, work and travel. It’s unclear whether declaring domestic mobile roaming would achieve this.
“The existing mobile networks need to be upgraded to improve capacity and reduce congestion.
“Enhancements to mobile networks would go a long way in improving the daily lives of non-metro consumers and ensuring access to emergency services. rounds of the Mobile Black Spot Program to extend coverage much further,” she said.