The spotlight on regional connectivity is turning to the Nationals, as the Coalition government pushes ahead with a controversial policy that has Labor and local service providers up in arms.
Telcos are jostling for space among the limited amount of frequency used by both mobile and wireless broadband providers as they ready for the roll out the fifth generation mobile networks technology.
Minister Mitch Fifield announced last week an auction will be held in October for licences to operate 5G within a spectrum of frequencies in the 3.6 gigahertz band.
Regional Communications Minister Bridget McKenzie has been not weighed into the debate publicly until this week, when she backed Mr Fifield’s plans.
The auction “will provide opportunities for Australians, especially those people in regional areas to take advantage of new broadband services, including 5G,” Ms McKenzie said.
Repeat of 4G?
The 5G technology is due to be released in 2020 and promises faster connection speeds, with less delay.
But the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association has warned hat the 5G rollout would deliver the same outcome for the regions as the current 4G networks.
That would mean mobile access for large regional centres where there is a critical mass of customers to attract investment, while many smaller towns and residences miss out.
A group of winning bidders, likely large telcos, will hold a 20 year monopoly licence in the 3.6GHz band within one of three zones covering the continent.
There are two metropolitan zones, and a third covers all regional areas - which is where the controversy lies.
Industry regulator the Australian Communications and Media Authority has indicated it could allocate wireless providers spectrum in a different band, but the association argues there are too few licences left to give and that it is too expensive for them get equipment to operate in a new band.
ACMA will investigate potential new regulations to manage a sharing arrangement between 5G licence holders and wireless providers, as well as “disaggregrated” licences, both of which are targeted at areas large telcos do not wish to service.
Like wireless providers, Labor regional communications spokesman Stephen Jones is sceptical telcos would share their licence, and argues uncertainty will kill wireless providers.
“Senator McKenzie is all hat and no cattle when it comes to looking after the needs of regional Australia,” Mr Jones said.
“Labor supports the planned spectrum auction and welcomes moves to clear the way for higher-value 5G services but believes the very real concerns of the wireless providers have not been adequately addressed.”
Wireless providers want the spectrum to be managed by a new ‘dynamic spectrum access’ technology that they say removes the need for “monopoly licences”.
It can allocate access within the band when required, enabling sharing between multiple users.
ACMA said dynamic access would favour bigger players over small providers.
The wireless providers fill the gaps in other networks and more than 200,000 businesses in the bush rely on them to provide the data upload capacity, which is physically not available through mobile networks or the NBN.
Upload capacity is needed for farms, for example, which upload large amounts of data from smart machines and sensors, logistics companies with remote links between many moving parts, or any number of business which use video conferencing
Ms McKenzie and Mr Fifield said government delivered “unprecedented” concessions to the wireless providers, such as new spectrum allocation and potential sharing arrangements.
While incumbent metropolitan licence holders have two years to vacate the band after the auction, regional licence holders will get a seven year transition period,
“I have carefully considered the implications for regional Australians in making this decision, and the declaration provides protections for incumbent users in the band while ensuring Australia is well-positioned to take advantage of 5G technology,” Mr Fifield said.
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