Comms Alliance pledges better base station consultation

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Comms Alliance pledges better base station consultation

Hopes to allay community concerns.

The Communications Alliance has proposed significant changes to the industry code governing mobile phone base station deployments in hopes of allaying community concerns.

The revision is the alliance's first since 2005 and comes as the industry ramps up opposition against a Federal legislative proposal that would override the registered industry code and potentially hamper future base stations or network upgrades.

The industry body hopes to meet community concerns through self-regulation, without requiring further legislation.

In a submission to the parliamentary committee investigating the proposed legislative amendments, the Comms Alliance said the revised code would improve consultation with communities and offer clearer communication from telcos when registered with the communications regulator next year.

The revised "Mobile Phone Base Station Deployment Industry Code" offers to revamp the current Radio Frequency National Site Archive web portal detailing mobile base station deployments.

It also lengthens the typical consultation that telcos undertake when investigating a new mobile base station site.

Councils will have 10 business days to review consultation plans - up from five - while communities will be able to review the plans for 15 days, up from 10. This may be extended by a further five business days where required.

"The code is a vital tool in ensuring that the ever-growing demand throughout Australia for mobile phone coverage and data capability – which requires ongoing network development – is properly balanced against legitimate community desire to have a say in how networks are deployed locally," the alliance said in its submission.

Comms Alliance's code is the product of some 12 months work by members of the Australian Communications and Media Authority, Mobile Carriers Forum, NBN Co, Sutherland Shire Environment Centre and the three major mobile carriers.

Also on the working committee are members of the parents and carers' committee from Queensland's Rainworth State School, which last year managed to defeat a Telstra proposal to establish a new mobile tower 200m from the school.

Comms Alliance chief executive John Stanton told iTnews the committee had also consulted with several user representative groups, all state and territory government planning departments, local councils and a number of community groups.

The code, once completed, would be submitted to the ACMA in the first quarter of 2012 with a view to ratifying it for use from July 1 next year.

But the alliance made no mention of how the code might address the space between new and upgraded mobile bases stations and 'sensitive sites'; the source of many complaints by communities and local governments and independent MP Andrew Wilkie, who introduced the private members' bill to Parliament.

Wilkie's amendments to the Telecommunications Act, in their current form, will force telcos or their agents to notify all residents within 500 metres of a planned tower extension of their intentions - instead of a 100-metre 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.

The amendments had caused concern for several industry players, including Vodafone and Optus, both of which have undertaken significant network expansion projects.

They could also empower communities to oppose proposed additions to existing towers or any new towers that may be established as part of the fixed wireless network component of the National Broadband Network.

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Telcos front up

The telco industry issued a show of force this month with submissions from the three major mobile carriers, industry bodies and tower operator Crown Castle all seeking to derail community and parliamentarian concerns that continued expansion of mobile networks in Australia pose harm to surrounding homes.

Fibre wholesaler Pipe Networks also submitted its concerns [pdf] to the amendments, claiming the proposal to increase notification requirements to a 500-metre radius was onerous on communications companies.

However, the industry submissions were few in number compared to the more than 50 submissions from residents, local governments and community action groups on the other side of the fence.

The Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy also made a submission but only pointed to additional information on the issue.

While official submissions recognise need the need for upgrades to existing networks, many still support the proposed legislative amendments in seeking for greater restrictions on upgrades and new stations.

Several residents, a South Australian MP as well as members of Toowong and Ballina Shire councils all recounted stories of ineffective community consultation with telcos over upgraded or new mobile base stations, describing the current industry code as largely useless.

"The [current industry] code requirements are drafted in such a way that it fails to create any legal obligation for industry," said Anthea Hopkins, a spokeswoman for the Sandy Bay Community Action Group which led opposition against a proposed Telstra base station in Tasmania this year.

"It is well known that the ... code is not enforced and breaches do not result in infringement notices or fines of any sort. The message is, carriers can effectively do what they like."

Sharon Adlam, a resident of Bawley Point in southern New South Wales, claimed the current code also exempted tower operators such as Crown Castle from regulation as it is not specifically a carrier.

Consumer representative body the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network sought to consolidate similar complaints in a submission to the committee, arguing even the revised code brought "no real 'balancing' of community concerns against the cost and inconvenience to carriers".

It blamed the code's requirements for a 'direction to comply' from the ACMA in event of a breach as hampering any resulting effects as "the ACMA's practice however has been to rarely if ever use its enforcement powers" [pdf].

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