Telstra, Optus prepare to oppose tower bill

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Telstra, Optus prepare to oppose tower bill

Carriers, industry organisation file last-minute submissions to inquiry.

Major mobile carriers and industry organisations are preparing last-minute submissions opposing a plan to give communities more power in deciding the location of antennas and upgrades.

Optus, Telstra and the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) all confirmed that they would be making submissions to a parliamentary committee inquiry that is examining the proposed bill, before the committee's deadline today.

Although AMTA is lodging a submission, its CEO Chris Althaus used a recent speech at the CommsDay summit in Melbourne to take a swipe at the laws.

Crown Castle Australia - which operates and maintains many of Vodafone's mobile towers - last week became the first industry player to officially weigh in on the subject, warning the new legislation could have an adverse affect on spectrum auctions and the viability of mobile coverage expansion.

The tower operator noted that of the 4432 low impact installations made by Vodafone, Optus and Telstra in the past year, less than one percent resulted in complaints.

Under proposed amendments to the Telecommunications Act, telcos or their agents would have to notify all residents within 500m of a planned tower extension of their intentions - compared to a 100m radius under current law.

It also required that "extensions" to an existing tower be limited to one - rather than the current five - metres in height.

A spokesman for AMTA called the proposed amendments "unwieldy" and said they would cause long delays to mobile deployments, which currently often take more than a year.

"The bill... would undermine efficient deployment of base stations and place unworkable burdens on local councils' approval processes," he said.

A Vodafone spokesman said the telco would rely on AMTA's submission to voice its concerns.


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Industry code?

 Optus CEO Paul O'Sullivan confirmed the telco's position yesterday, warning the proposed legislation could impact the company's plans to expand mobile coverage and roll out its Long Term Evolution network.

"We believe that there needs to be a lot of consideration given to any changes in the current rules because at the moment responsible carriers like Optus go through extensive community consultation," he said.

"It's very difficult to ever get [an] allocation that every single individual is going to be happy with."

Optus has particularly come under pressure recently from communities to re-site or halt plans for mobile coverage expansion in regional areas as part of its $2 billion investment.

It had been forced to reconsider some mobile towers which went against obstacle limitations at airports as well.

But O'Sullivan noted community support in some areas for new towers where there has previously been sparse or no mobile coverage, and where competition is restricted.

"What we want to do is make sure that [while] on the one hand [there are] people who are raising concerns about sites, [on the other hand] there are many more who are actually demanding improved coverage and improved access to mobile," O'Sullivan said.

"We think the two sides of the equation need to be properly factored into any debate."

He instead proposed greater scope for community consultation as part of the industry code currently under review by the Communications Alliance, without legislating restrictions on the types and sizes of antennae possible for deployment.

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie, who had introduced the bill, was not available for comment at time of writing.

NBN Co's plans

 The bill also threatens to have an impact on NBN Co's plans to roll out a fixed wireless network as part of the National Broadband Network, as it could intensify potential community backlash against the network wholesaler.

The company already plans to educate users in the first five fixed wireless sites on the impact of the base stations as it begins rolling out the network.

CEO Mike Quigley sought to downplay any adverse affect the legislation might have on the rollout, noting the wholesaler would look to share tower access with existing carriers in areas where possible.

However, if the amendments pass through Parliament unchanged, it would also empower communities to oppose upgrades to existing towers.

Quigley focused on the potential impact the legislation would have on other mobile carriers who sought to establish more towers in built-up areas, shrinking the size of an individual mobile cell to cope with greater demand from users.

"Frankly, if that gets up that will be the least of the worries because the only way you get the capacity in mobile networks - once you do the transition from 3G to LTE, you're almost tapped out in spectral efficiency - the only thing you can do is shrink the cell size," he said.

"There isn't anything on the horizon that looks like it's going to give us any more."

AMTA's spokesman agreed that more mobile base stations are inevitable in built-up areas.

"Reliable mobile phone services can only be delivered where base stations are close to consumers. The industry must deploy more base stations to expand the network footprint and develop higher capacity and speed to meet increasing traffic loads because existing networks are inadequate to meet expected demand."

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