The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has acted against Telstra for spectrum hoarding, after the incumbent telco used legacy access to 900MHz spectrum to baulk Optus’ 5G network rollout.
The carrier has provided a court-enforceable undertaking to address the issue, which has been accepted by the ACCC.
The regulator explained that some of Telstra’s registrations of radiocommuncation sites “interfered with Optus’ plans to roll out its 5G network nationally”.
ACCC commissioner Liza Carver said the ACCC believed the registration of 315 sites in the 900MHz band “had the substantial purpose or likely effect of lessening competition by Optus, as Telstra knew of the importance of this spectrum band to Optus’ 5G rollout plan.”
Telstra was able to exploit long-standing access to 900MHz spectrum for its 2G network, which closed in 2016.
As the carrier’s undertaking [pdf] explained, prior to 31 January 2022, it held just 109 registrations for 900MHz sites, and hadn’t registered a site since 2016.
Late last year, Optus won all the 900MHz spectrum on offer in the ACMA’s spectrum auction, and to facilitate network deployment ahead of the July 2024 commencement of the auctioned spectrum, the ACMA announced it would authorise PMTS Class B licences (known as “early access licences”).
Unlike spectrum licences, the PMTS (public mobile telecommunications service) licences are what’s known as an “apparatus licence”, allowing the owner to install equipment in a location in the nominated spectrum band.
Where there was a clash between an early access licence and an existing apparatus licence, the ACCC said it would give primary access to the party that had applied first – and that gave Telstra the chance to use its old 2G-era licences.
On 31 January 2022, Telstra registered assignments at 315 sites, 153 of which have been deregistered, leaving 162 still registered.
The ACCC’s concern, as detailed in the undertaking, was that those registrations had the “purpose or likely effect” of stopping Optus getting early access to the 900MHz sites, and was therefore “prevented or hindered” the telco from competing in the retail mobile market.
Telstra has agreed to deregister the remaining sites “to the extent necessary to remove the barrier those registrations impose” on Optus.
A Telstra spokesperson provided a statement to iTnews, which we report in full below.
“We do not agree with the ACCC’s views that this was potentially anticompetitive.
“Our focus here was on improving service for our customers, including relieving 3G congestion in some parts of regional Australia. We identified an opportunity to reduce congestion in a small number of places by moving 3G traffic onto our 900 MHz spectrum, given it is unused and we own until 2024. At the same time this would free up 850 MHz spectrum to meet the growing demands of our 5G customers.
“It makes absolute sense for us to use the spectrum we own in this way to maximise the experience for our 3G and 5G customers.
“While we do not agree with the ACCC’s view, these cases can be drawn out, costly and time-consuming, and risk distracting us from providing better service to our customers, including customers in regional Australia. To avoid that we have filed an undertaking to deregister sites in areas Optus demonstrates it will use the spectrum in its 5G rollout.
“We will continue to use equipment and sites in areas where Optus is not rolling out and hope this means we can continue to use our 900 MHz spectrum until it expires in 2024 to deliver benefits for our customers given that Optus’s 5G rollout is not well advanced in many of those areas.”