Rural and Regional Telecommunications
The VFF and the ACCC share the view that rural and regional Australians are relatively disadvantaged from participating in contemporary Australian (online) social and business activities because of poor connectivity.
The VFF supports the goals of the Rural, Regional and Remote Communications Coalition (RRRCC) which campaigned for five fundamental outcomes for regional and remote consumers. These are:
- A universal service obligation that is technologically neutral and provides access to both voice and data
- Customer service guarantees and reliability measures to underpin the provision of voice and data services, to deliver more accountability from providers and NBN
- Long term public funding for open access mobile network expansion in rural and regional Australia
- Fair and equitable access to Sky Muster (geostationary communications satellites operated by the NBN) for those with a genuine need for the service, and access which reflects the residential, educational and business needs of rural and regional Australia
- Fully resourced capacity building programs that build digital ability and development of effective problem solving support for regional, rural and remote businesses and consumers.
There is no evidence that a market with low competition benefits farmers. The VFF does not support the ACCC preliminary decision (May 2017) on declaring domestic mobile roaming. Recognising that Telstra has a privileged market position the VFF advocates there should be more scrutiny on Telstra to demonstrate high quality service and consumer outcomes for rural and regional Australians.
Extent of coverage is not the same as quality of coverage. The VFF strongly advocates that telecommunications for rural and regional Australians must come with a minimum quality standard as a consumer guarantee.
In 2017 the state government revealed a commitment to invest $45 million to improve digital technology and infrastructure across regional Victoria. The VFF will hold government accountable for the roll out of these budget promises.
Several specific opportunities exist for rural and regional communities to increase mobile connectivity.
Mobile black spot program
This government funded program provides subsidies to telecommunication companies to establish mobile roaming infrastructure. The state budget 2017 included $11 million of funding to continue the Mobile Black Spot program (MBSP). Telstra negotiated a specification for co-location space on towers which gives Telstra an advantage in the program. Despite this, there has been some take-up by competing telco’s in the MBSP.
As an example, Vodafone Australia has invested $9 million in 32 new sites to cover the 70 sites under the MBSP in NSW, Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland and Western Australia to provide continuous coverage.
In one area – New England, NSW – Vodafone built 18 new sites through the MBSP plus a further self-funded eight sites and opened a store in Armidale (regional population of 202 000 – town population of 23 600). This led to a reduction in connectivity and mobile data rates, from Telstra in this area.
This national network has the capability to sell “cell site access service” which is a mobile backhaul service to mobile providers. The NBN could deliver a wholesale mobile service through its fixed wireless towers providing a 4G-type network (up to 50 mbps download speed) to mobile operators. This wholesale service may improve a return on investment to the NBN, whilst ensuring rural and regional areas capitalise on reliable mobile connectivity.
This backhaul service is only available on NBN fibre and fixed wireless networks, not NBN satellite.
The VFF aims to make Victoria a pilot state for mobile and digital programs that benefit those in agriculture, particularly rural and regional Australia. We will do this through direct federal and state lobbying, an online member campaign and the harnessed support of all telecommunication companies.