Crown Castle warns of spectrum cost of antenna laws

Ry Crozier | Nov 4, 2011 12:22 PM
First strike against controversial Telco Act amendments.

Mobile tower operator Crown Castle Australia has warned proposed changes to laws giving communities more power to oppose antenna deployments could slash future takings from spectrum auctions.

The company, which owns 1600 towers and rooftops and maintains Vodafone Hutchison Australia's network of 2500 towers, is the first to blast the planned legislation in submissions to a House of Representatives committee inspecting the bill.

Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association CEO Chris Althaus also took a swipe at the laws at the Commsday summit in Melbourne recently, though the organisation was yet to lodge a submission to the committee.

The private members bill was proposed by the independent MP Andrew Wilkie [pdf] in September and had since garnered support from the Greens.

Crown Castle's corporate development director David McKean criticised a tightening of the rules that telcos need to follow when planning to install equipment under the low impact provisions of the Telecommunications Act.

Under the proposed amendments, telcos (or their agents, such as Crown) would have to notify all residents within 500m of a tower extension of their intentions - up from the 100m radius under current law.

More controversial for the industry is that "extensions" to an existing tower will be limited to one - rather than the current five - metres in height.

That would force many initiatives adding new antennae to an existing tower out of "low impact" rules, meaning the plans would have to be lodged with local councils for approval, as plans for new towers are today.

"It can take well over a year to construct a new tower via local government approval process," McKean said in the company's submission to the committee [pdf].

"If low impact is 'watered down', more installations will be forced to follow the same process and suffer the same delays.

"Tower extensions will require the same planning approval process as brand new towers".

In the past financial year, Optus, Telstra and VHA undertook 4432 low impact installations, Crown said. Less than one percent resulted in complaints, Crown said, citing figures by the Mobile Carriers Forum (MCF).

It appeared most - if not all - of these installations would be caught up if tower extensions were limited to a metre.

"Antennas typically range between 1.2m to 2.6m and so a limit of '1 metre' means the limit is actually '0'," McKean noted.

He warned that while the bill is being argued, it created "considerable uncertainty" for mobile telcos "at a time when critical investment decisions are being made".

In particular, it could have an impact on forthcoming spectrum auctions to power 4G networks.

"An uncertain regulatory environment increases the cost of equity associated with bidding for spectrum and, therefore, reduces the bid price and the ultimate returns to taxpayers on that valuable community asset," McKean said.

He also warned that the new rules could get in the way of NBN Co's fixed wireless network, which he said required the types of tower extensions made difficult to roll out by the proposed rules.

McKean believed that improving community consultation on planned antenna deployments should be made in the Australian Communications Industry Forum (ACIF) code that telcos must abide by when rolling out network assets.

A revision of the ACIF code is currently underway.

Crown Castle pointed to the "recent groundswell of community concern" over mobile network quality but made little mention of the similar groundswell of concern by communities over antenna placements.

iTnews reported earlier this year that disputes over "low impact" placements were regaining the spotlight after a period of absence from view.

It is this particular groundswell - not that over service quality - that the legislative amendments are designed to address.

"I think the telecommunications industry has too much autonomy when siting and constructing mobile phone towers with the result that legitimate community concerns are often not addressed,'' MP Andrew Wilkie said prior to his first reading of the private members bill.

"Members of the community should not have to hold public rallies and lobby politicians just to be heard."