MOBILE roaming will not benefit the bush so telcommunication companies should be subject to new controls to help boost coverage in the bush, according to the ACCC.
Mobile roaming would force telcos to accept pay from their competitors to share network access in areas serviced by one provider.
The Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) rejected roaming, finding it would likely reduce market competition and risk investment in new infrastructure.
Instead, chairman Rod Sims wants to unravel the opaque world of rural telco coverage to empower mobile customers with pertinent information to foster informed decision making when choosing a network operator.
He will twist telcos arm for better information on geographic network coverage, speeds and plans for investments in upgrades and extensions, which would help policy makers get better bang for the public buck with communication infrastructure investments.
Regional Australia’s dominant mobile provider Telstra has opposed roaming, often butting heads with pro-roaming upstart rival Vodafone.
In June Vodafone lodged legal proceedings to challenge the ACCC’s draft recommendation against roaming.
Peak agricultural lobby National Farmers Federation highlighted mobile coverage as a key issue, citing poor service on many farms. It opposed mandated roaming and argued it may discourage competition among telcos to expand their netowrks.
Opaque and inaccurate
The consumer watchdog’s final report noted a “significant number” of submissions on lack of transparency in regional networks.
It said telco coverage claims “do not always reflect actual experience or the quality of the coverage offered”, particularly maps which provided by companies showing connection speeds across the country.
The ACCC will ask telcos to deliver “more transparent and consistent information” network performance, particularly for “a more accurate assessment of mobile tower performance”.
For example, maps showing coverage do not necessarily indicate “depth of coverage” or how many towers service an area.
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The ACCC acknowledged it was difficult for telcos to produce accurate maps, with vegetation or various building materials a particular problem.
“Nevertheless, inadequate or inaccurate coverage maps raise risks for (telcos) under the Australian Consumer Law,” the report said.
The report noted University of New England Professor David Lamb’s recent report that said telcos should set standard metrics around tower performance, such as the number of voice and data users, as well as receiver characteristics like antennas to provide a more consistent and transparent demonstration of network coverage and performance.
The ACCC agreed with submissions that noted Mobile Blackspot Program funding was often directed away from areas of greatest need, and called for better information from telcos to help solve the problem.
Information collected from telcos by various state and federal agencies for policy and regulation development is often hard to use. Companies present data in a range of different ways, making it hard to compare apples to apples.
The ACCC found it problematic that the blackspot program relied on communities to identify priority locations. It called for evidence based site selection, which means using accurate, well informed coverage maps with consistent metrics on tower performance among various telcos and accurate plans for future investment.
The Blackspot Program selection criteria has been accused of being open to pork barrelling by government to prioritise marginal electorates.
The days of telco’s press releases on blockbuster investments in the bush may be numbered, as the ACCC plans for new regulations that would give the ACCC more power to stamp out inflated promises and under-delivery.
Network growth is “particularly important for regional communities” but companies’ public statements often lack crucial details explaining what impact proposed investment would have.
“The ACCC has experienced difficulty during the inquiry in obtaining information from (telcos) about how announced investments will manifest in specific improvements for network coverage and quality in particular areas,” the report said.
It plans to tighten the Infrastructure Record Keeping Rule that requires telcos to keep it informed of infrastructure rollouts.
The ACCC will kick off consultation this month on changes to enable it to compare telco’s network expansion promises to the actual outcomes.