We should follow US FCC on broadband benchmarks

Mark Gregory

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has raised the broadband internet speed benchmark to at least 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload.

This decision by the FCC serves to highlights the lack of minimum performance standards for telecommunications services in Australia.

The new benchmark broadband speed in the US might be considered to be symbolic, but it can be used as a reason for denying companies access to public funding through black spot programs.

In 2022, the FCC denied nearly US$900 million in subsidies to Starlink under the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) grant scheme because it was found that “its network performance was below the required minimum speeds of 100/20 Mbps.”

In Australia, federal, state and local governments provide black spot funding grants to telcos without any performance requirements. I’m not aware that any performance testing of telecommunications services provided through publicly funded infrastructure has ever been carried out.

Regional Australia … Townsville

While ignoring the need for minimum performance standards, successive Australian governments have provided the telecommunications carriers billions of dollars in funding for various telecommunications infrastructure projects in regional and remote areas.

Woeful service performance remains a major issue in regional and remote areas.

In 2022, I published two reports on mobile telecommunications performance in regional and remote areas with a focus on large First Nations towns and communities. The reports highlight the very poor performance in most areas covered during the study across four states.

The government has announced a $20 million mobile telecommunications performance audit that is due to commence this year. This is a positive step that will provide more evidence on the state of mobile telecommunications in regional and remote areas.

If the government was to follow the FCC’s lead and set a broadband benchmark of 100/20 Mbps, then the mobile performance audit could be used to collect evidence on the performance of mobile services provided on infrastructure that has been funded by taxpayers.

The Australian telecommunications industry is broken. The ‘self-regulation’ permitted by successive governments, since deregulation more than 25 years ago, has led to an increasing number of major outages, delays in maintenance and repairs and a reduction in the engineering capacity of the infrastructure providers.

The business model underpinning the Australian telecommunications market is outdated and is holding the market back.

Charging for the transmission of data is a lazy approach that restricts growth and means we have outcomes that are nothing short of a calamity.

The cost of data transmission to Tasmania is a national scandal that must be resolved, hopefully by the current government.

Australia has third-world status for broadband connection speeds. For mobile broadband connection speeds, the results are skewed by the simple fact that the results are dominated by readings taken in the major cities.

If the mobile broadband speeds found in my study in 2022 were used to rank Australia, then we would win the sweepstake, a third-world nation in all categories.

The Australian government sponsored Regional Telecommunications Review (RTR) is “undertaken every three years and considers the adequacy of telecommunications services in regional, rural and remote Australia. The independent committee will consult publicly including with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.”

The first review was held in 2008 and in every review since, the lack of adequate performance of telecommunication services in regional and remote areas has been highlighted in the review report.

So why continue with a triannual review that produces reports with very similar recommendations that are not acted upon by government?

This remains a difficult question to answer, and many people and organisations do make submissions with the hope that their submission might make a difference.

The question is when will government act on the major recommendations?

Unfortunately, universities are now dollar driven and for research to gain recognition, universities focus only on funded research as a measurable outcome.

This means that it is becoming harder and harder to justify spending time on research into the fundamental performance and economic problems that lie at the heart of the Australian telecommunications market.

For this reason, I will unfortunately not be making a submission to the current regional telecommunications review.

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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