Regional telecommunications still expensive and unreliable, review finds

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Regional telecommunications still expensive and unreliable, review finds

Fires, floods and plague highlight telcos' inadequacies.

A string of natural disasters since 2018 plus the Covid-19 pandemic have exposed the inadequacies in regional telecommunications networks and services, according to a report tabled in federal parliament yesterday.

The 2021 Regional Telecommunications Review: A step change in demand was tabled by the minister for regionalisation, regional communications and regional education, Senator Bridget McKenzie.

The report noted that in addition to the pandemic, which put a premium on connectivity for remote work, the 2019-2020 east coast bushfires and 2021 eastern Australia floods both highlight telecommunications networks' failings in the face of natural disaster.

During the bushfire emergency, mobile networks often failed because power cuts lasted longer than the batteries at base stations.

And, as noted in a submission from the Macdonald Valley Association, not even Telstra exchanges can be relied on.

“‘During power cuts Telstra landline services (and ADSL internet) now cease after six to 14 hours as Telstra has not maintained a back-up generator at the local ... exchange,” that submission claimed.

To tackle reliability and performance issues in the bush, the report asked the government to implement “escalating fines” for wholesalers and retailers that don’t meet minimum standards in fixed, mobile, fixed wireless, and satellite services.

Because services are unreliable, the report states, regional users have multiple services, meaning they spend more than city users to stay connected; and the lack of competition means they have fewer plans and providers to choose from, so they pay a comparative premium for those services.

To address the cost of regional services, the report says government should get carriers to “zero-rate” data charges for access to federal, state and territory government services. 

Comprehensive findings

The report makes 16 key findings and offers a dozen recommendations.

The findings are: 

  • State and federal governments should improve both coordination and investment, to fix the “patchwork quilt” of technologys now in place (an outstanding example is the continued use of Telstra’s high capacity radio concentrators, introduced in the days of ISDN and now so ancient spare parts are hard to find);
  • Telecommunications service delivery is falling to under-resourced local councils and “other regional stakeholders”;
  • Regional competition and innovation are inhibited by a lack of access to backbone fibre and radio spectrum;
  • The universal service obligation (USO) should be urgently reviewed;
  • The copper network, in particular, is deteriorating, causing “significant issues” with maintenance and repair;
  • Natural disasters that disrupt power and cause network outages reduce access to recovery and support;
  • While mobile coverage is improving, “expanding reliable coverage to priority areas is becoming more difficult”;
  • NBN Sky Muster users are still “frustrated by insufficient data allowances, high latency and reliability issues”;
  • Emerging technologies like Starlink might meet demand, but their performance hasn't been validated;
  • Providers aren’t adequately addressing the “complex needs of regional users”, while those users find it hard to resolve telecommunications issues;
  • Those users also need independent advice and better “connectivity literacy” so they can make informed choices;
  • Telcos’ predictive coverage maps “don’t accurately reflect on-the-ground telecommunications experience”, and the report accuses the industry of “significant misinformation about the availability of telecommunications services”;
  • Services remain expensive for vulnerable users; and
  • “Continued engagement with Indigenous Australians in regional, rural and remote communities is needed to address ongoing issues of access, affordability and digital ability”. The report highlights last-mile infrastructure, and community-level wi-fi, as essential for Indigenous communities.

Short-termism has to end

The report’s recommendations highlight a need for long-term investment and planning at all levels of government (recommendation 1).

That should include a government commitment to “large-scale, multi-year connectivity investments” (recommendation 2), including new mobile coverage, and additional backbone solutions to improve regional capacity and competition.

Government should also look to establish a regional telecommunications resilience fund (recommendation 3), to improve emergency and network resilience; as well as providing extra funding for the strengthening telecommunications against natural disasters or STAND package. 

This should include better coordination between telcos, energy providers, and emergency services, and government should set standards for “maintenance and preparation for emergency events”.

In recommendation 4, the report suggests the government establish a program to validate emerging technologies like low earth orbit satellites (like Elon Musk’s Starlink).

In recommendation 8, as well as asking the government to review the USO to increase minimum standards for data speeds and “busy hour” performance, the report says the USO should be reviewed on an annual basis.

User education and NBN services are covered by the next two recommendations.

The lack of mandated standards for service, performance, and reliability standards is addressed in recommendation 7, which suggests escalating fines for providers that don’t meet standards. If implemented, that recommendation would also require telcos to publish “real time” information about network performance.

To help address regional mobile coverage and performance, recommendation 9 suggests government fund a national audit of services, and conduct a feasibility study into roaming deployment during emergencies.

The mobile blackspot program should be redesigned to encourage mobile carriers to share access infrastructure in regional and remote locations, with government to fund infrastructure that provides shared access (recommendation 10).

To improve service to Indigenous communities, the government should continue applying the National Indigenous Inclusion Plan; address national agreement on closing the gap targets; and support community digital inclusion programs, such as InDigiMOB (recommendation 11).

“Zero rated” government services (that is, the removal of data charges, particularly on mobile networks) should happen during the current myGov upgrade, and online employment services should also be introduced (recommendation 12).

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