Vodafone is hoping to challenge one of the key grounds used by the ACCC to kill off a contentious bid two years ago to force Telstra's regional mobile network to be opened to rivals.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is presently consulting on a plan to make mobile telcos retrospectively identify all cell sites in their networks that were built with the help of government money.
The commission said in November last year that such disclosure would allow it “to meaningfully analyse the extent of the [telcos’] investments [in infrastructure], independent of any co-contribution program”.
The proposal has the backing of Vodafone and Commpete (the former Competitive Carriers Coalition), but not Telstra's support - and it is now clear why.
The data could benefit Vodafone directly by strengthening its case for the ACCC to revisit the issue of regional mobile roaming.
In October 2017, the ACCC decided not to force Telstra to open the regional portion of its mobile network to rival telcos.
Telstra vigorously fought the proposal through 2016 and 2017, accusing Vodafone of being an infrastructure “freeloader” and arguing roaming could dis-incentivise billions in regional infrastructure investment.
Vodafone unsuccessfully sought a judicial review of the ACCC’s decision in the federal court.
But it appears Vodafone has not given up hope that the ACCC could change its mind, and is looking for evidence - in the form of data - that would allow it to challenge the extent to which Telstra has invested in regional Australia since that time.
“[Vodafone] notes that a substantial plank of the ACCC’s decision to not declare roaming ... was that the ACCC feared it would dull the carriers’ incentives to invest beyond metropolitan areas and compete on differentiated infrastructure,” Vodafone chief strategy officer Dan Lloyd said.
“The ACCC’s hypothesis can be tested once the carriers are required to provide that information identifying sites which have received public funding and those that have not.”
In other words, Vodafone’s case for the regulated opening of Telstra’s regional mobile network could be stronger if it becomes apparent that much of the money used to build and upgrade it came from government coffers, rather than Telstra’s own pockets.
Forcing telcos to disclose how much of their network investment came from government versus their own pockets “would increase the accountability of investment claims made by carriers in mobile infrastructure," Lloyd said.
Lloyd argued that telcos should be made to specify “the dollar amount of the total subsidies received for each specific site that has received public funding”.
“[Vodafone] believes the carriers can readily provide this information.”
Telstra, however, said it “does not support providing information on co-funded mobile sites”, in part because the data would be difficult to collate.
“There have been a multitude of such programs over the last two decades operated under widely different guidelines and involving multiple levels of government,” Telstra argued.
“As there has never been any requirement to record and retain records on all these programs, we do not hold any consolidated list of which sites have been co-funded and a retrospective requirement to report this information would require significant investigation of historical records.”
Telstra said it would make more sense to chase government agencies for the amounts of their co-contributions to mobile infrastructure over the years.
It also said that any requirement placed on telcos to publish co-funding data should be “of a forward-looking nature only.”
Commpete has a different reason for wanting telcos to disclose co-funding arrangements: to work out how many of the sites end up being exclusively used by the telco that received the funding, and how many are offered to mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) users of the same network.
“The expanded coverage that is created by this publicly funded infrastructure is not routinely shared with MVNOs,” Commpete said.
“The [mobile network operator] beneficiary reserves for itself a discretion to decide when - if at all - to make the extended coverage available to its wholesale MVNO customers.
“The benefits of publicly funded mobile sites are not shared with MVNOs except in those areas where the deployment of a competing network infrastructure is economically feasible.”
Commpete argued that consumers would be “better served” if coverage at co-funded towers was available through more than one retail offering.
“Denying access to publicly funded network extensions is solely an exercise of market power,” it said.