Regional telecoms policy has been a failure

Mark Gregory

The 2021 Regional Telecommunications Review (2021 RTR) included twelve recommendations that clearly identify the major issues related to the provision of reasonably priced, reliable, resilient telecommunications in regional and remote areas.

Two recommendations made by the committee stand out simply because every review held over the past decade have had very similar recommendations.

Recommendation 7. Network Performance and Reliability. The Committee recommends that the government develops and enforces minimum wholesale and retail service, performance and reliability standards appropriate for each service type (fixed and landline, mobile, fixed wireless, satellites).

The committee further recommends that:

  • escalating penalties for failure to meet standards appropriate for each service type are introduced and enforced; and
  • wholesalers and retailers must make practical and useable information available to consumers about network performance in ‘real time’.

Recommendation 9. Mobile Services. The Committee recommends that the Government ensures measures are undertaken to increase the accuracy and transparency of mobile network quality and coverage information, including network congestion. This includes measures to collect and standardise mobile network coverage information and develop a tool to empower consumers to compare network performance and service availability.

Calling all regions: Townsville aerial

The Committee further recommends that:

  • the Government provides funding to undertake an investigation and audit to collect and report mobile coverage performance across regional Australia, including congestion; and
  • the Government undertakes a feasibility study to consider the capability for mobile roaming to be deployed in emergency circumstances.

In the record number of submissions made to the 2021 RTR, the calls for performance monitoring, standards and penalties for poor performance were frequent and loud, and many submissions reflected the anger and angst felt in regional areas at the lack of government action to do something about the current situation.

In my submission to the 2021 RTR, I recommended that:

  1. Federal government funding should be made available for an academic study of regional mobile telecommunications performance to be carried out or for funding to be provided to the ACCC for the MBA program to be extended to regional mobile telecommunications.
  2. The federal government should legislate minimum performance standards for regional mobile telecommunications.
  3. The federal government should require the ACMA to work with Communications Alliance to prepare an industry standard on mobile telecommunications performance.
  4. Regional mobile telecommunications performance should be the same as urban mobile telecommunications performance for government applications and services.
  5. The ACCC should declare domestic mobile roaming for regional mobile telecommunications for a period of three years.

The Coalition government’s response to the 2021 RTR ignores Recommendations 7 and 9 completely. The government has yet again ignored the need for performance monitoring.

The government’s response appears to have been little more than to re-announce previously made commitments for regional telecommunications projects, primarily the regional blackspot program.

The government acknowledges that telecommunications is an essential service but does not appear to grasp the need to focus on the three fundamental and measurable parameters that, when combined, provide the basis upon which judgements about telecommunications can be made.

The parameters are cost, access and performance. Information is readily available about the first two parameters. Quantifiable information is not available about performance.

On 18 August 2021, I wrote to the Minister for Communications Paul Fletcher and asked a series of questions including:

  1. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has a program to measure the performance (throughput) of consumer connections to the NBN. Will the government fund the ACCC this year or next to extend this program to include the mobile networks in regional and remote areas?
  2. What performance (throughput) should a mobile network user in regional and remote areas expect and under what conditions?
  3. Why has the government not released performance (throughput) expectations related to publicly funded mobile network infrastructure?

On 19 November 2021, I received a response from the Minister for Regional Communications Bridget McKenzie that did not answer any of the questions in my letter nor was performance monitoring addressed in any manner.

Ms Mckenzie restated the government’s funding commitments to the Mobile Blackspot Program and the Regional Connectivity Program and recommended that I make a submission to the 2021 RTR.

“A public consultation process will be undertaken to ensure that the views of community, industry and government stakeholders are taken into account in the design of the next round of these programs.”

I believed that my letter clearly identified that I was writing about the need for performance monitoring, so I wrote again to Ms McKenzie, explained why performance monitoring was needed and asked for the government to fund a short term study to collect data during the period to March 2022. I indicated that the data collected will provide a valuable insight. I also stated that:

“This funding is strongly anticipated to be in line with a recommendation from the upcoming Regional Telecommunication Review Independent Committee report – the same recommendation was made in the past reports.”

In a response from Ms McKenzie dated 4 January 2022, the Minister states:

“I will be considering the [2021 RTR] report carefully in formulating the Government’s response. I will bear in mind the matters you have also raised with me directly. As has been the case in the past, the findings and recommendations of the Review will be important in the development of the Government’s regional telecommunications agenda for the coming years.”

So why has the government failed to address fundamental issues affecting regional telecommunications?

Speaking at a National Farmers Federation conference on 5 April 2022, the Labor leader Anthony Albanese announced a $20 million plan to “commence an independent national audit of mobile coverage in 2022, to establish an evidence baseline to guide future priorities.”

“A competitive tender process will be used to identify a partner company capable of placing mobile signal measurement devices on Australia Post’s transport assets, to gather the best information possible.”

Labor’s $20 million plan should provide the fundamental data that is needed prior to policy being created in response to the 2021 RTR Recommendations 7 and 9.

The Coalition should adopt Labor’s plan to carry out an audit of mobile coverage and performance in regional areas commencing in 2022.

Failure to do so will result in the digital divide continuing to detrimentally affect the lives of Australians living in regional and remote areas.

Mark Gregory is an Associate Professor in the School of Engineering at RMIT University

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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