Australia’s consumer watchdog has identified a “number of issues” with regional mobile coverage after deciding not to declare mobile roaming.
If a national roaming service were to be declared, it would mean that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) would set conditions allowing mobile network users to access infrastructure belonging to telecommunications providers other than their own to access coverage.
Now, the ACCC has said that there is a range of other regulatory and policy measures that could improve inadequate mobile phone coverage and poor quality of service in regional Australia.
The ACCC said, despite deciding not to declare mobile roaming in regional Australia, it had heard from many consumers and businesses that inadequate mobile coverage affects the social and economic well-being of regional communities
“We identified a number of issues where we think improvements could be made that would deliver better outcomes for regional consumers,” ACCC chairman, Rod Sims said.
“Better transparency about network coverage and quality, more accountability about network investments and better information for regulatory and policy decision makers are all important.”
In the Measures to address regional mobile issues paper, the ACCC proposes to approach the industry directly asking they develop more transparent and consistent information about mobile networks and services. It also suggests a coordinated government response to consider how to get a consistent, transparent and publicly available data on mobile networks.
The ACCC also announced it will shortly commence a review of its Infrastructure Record Keeping Rules to improve the information it collects about mobile network infrastructure.
In order to reduce the costs of deploying and improving mobile networks, the ACCC proposes to ask Federal Government that competition considerations be adequately dealt with when designing subsidy programs to expand coverage.
A review of the Facilities Access Code, which is administered by the ACCC, will identify and remove any barriers to the timely deployment of infrastructure. This could also examine whether changes are required to facilitate the rollout of 5G.
The ACCC believes there is scope for mobile network operators to continue to use NBN infrastructure to extend their network footprints and it will write to nbn Co and MNOs to encourage more active discussions about opportunities to use nbn Co’s fixed wireless networks and other infrastructure.
The consumer watchdog also considers that there is an opportunity for the proposed reforms to the radio communications regime to do more to promote competition in relevant markets.
In September 2016, the ACCC announced the intention to conduct an inquiry on domestic mobile roaming. Telstra was the first telco to disagree with the inquiry as, a mobile roaming declaration could force telecommunications provider such as Telstra to open its networks to other providers.
In May, the consumer watchdog released a draft decision proposing not to declare a mobile roaming service as it found that declaration would likely not lead to lower prices, better coverage or quality of services for regional Australians.
Vodafone Hutchison Australia decided to take legal action against ACCC’s draft decision to not declare mobile roaming. Vodafone said that the draft decision would deny the benefits of increased coverage, competition and choice to Australian mobile customers, especially those in regional and rural areas.
“Too many Australians will continue to be held hostage to Telstra, and will have no choice but to pay Telstra’s mobile premium which totals $1.4 billion per year,” Vodafone said in a statement at the time.
The judge has not issued a decision yet.
The ACCC said that, while geographic coverage is important it is not the only factor people consider when choosing their provider.
"Many Australians actually prefer Telstra in areas where there is competing coverage due to the quality of the network," Sims said.
Vodafone chief strategy officer, Dan Lloyd, refuted that by saying that ACCC’s claims that many Australians prefer Telstra in some areas due to the quality of the network, "flies in the face of public independent tests which show that Vodafone has the best performing network in cities with a population above 100,000".
"It is extraordinary the ACCC has failed to intervene in a market where Telstra is clearly dominant, with the ACCC admitting Telstra has a regional market as high as 84 per cent in some area. Telstra has received over $2 billion of handouts from government and its competitors over the last decade, and continues to receive more than $230,000 per hour of subsidies," Lloyd said.
"It’s inexplicable that the ACCC thinks that a taxpayer subsidised regional mobile monopoly is reasonably effective competition when we provided compelling evidence that this is costing Australia up to $1.4 billion a year.
"The report’s findings are contradictory. This decision to protect a monopoly is inexplicable as it is at odds with the ACCC’s usual reasoning. In every other context the ACCC is suspicious of markets with four or less players, but in this case is strangely comfortable to allow a regional mobile monopoly to continue."
Telstra, on the other hand, has welcomed ACCC's decision with CEO Andrew Penn saying that