Proposed legislation by the Greens and Independent MP Andrew Wilkie to increase the levels of community consultation around the maintenance of mobile phone towers could cost Telstra $2 billion a year in extra costs, according to the telco.
The Bills proposed by Greens Senator Bob Brown and Wilkie, currently being reviewed by a parliamentary committee, would subject so-called "low impact" mobile phone facilities, such as antennas, to government planning laws, and would require tower owners to consult with landholders within 500 metres of the proposed site. There would need to be a 200-metre distance to the nearest school or hospital, and mobile carriers would have to lodge a five-year plan with councils to say where they want to install facilities.
In a submission to the inquiry, Telstra said that, in addition to causing lengthy delays to the maintenance of mobile telecommunications infrastructure as a result of extended consultation periods, the Bill requires all land owners within 500 metres to be notified, which meant the telco would also be required to increase the amount of residents it notifies every time maintenance is undertaken by an extra 8 million a year. This would lead to much higher costs to conduct upgrades, according to the telco.
"Based on current experience, Telstra estimates that each individually addressed Telecommunications Act notice will cost not less than $250 to prepare and distribute. An additional 8 million notices a year would result in a cost to Telstra of $2 billion annually. This figure does not include the costs of dealing with higher numbers of follow up inquiries and objections, which would also be many millions of dollars annually," Telstra said.
"The costs to Telstra of the consultation model proposed by the Bill are huge, and as noted above, do not achieve any meaningful community benefit."
This would also be an annoyance to residents, Telstra added.
"Householders would be inundated with irrelevant Telecommunications Act notices as each owner and occupier within 500 metres of, for example, a cable haul or installation of a new antenna on an existing facility, is notified."
Telstra, along with Optus and Vodafone in their submissions, pointed to the voluntary industry draft code developed by the Communications Alliance, known as the Mobile Base Station Deployment Industry code, to establish a framework for consulting with the community during construction and maintenance of facilities. Telstra noted that complaints to the regulators over community consultation had been down over the years.
The Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) took a more reserved view of the costs associated with the proposed Bill. Pointing to information from Deloitte Economics, AMTA estimated that the total annual cost would be $2.2 billion for all mobile carriers, with $2.06 billion in administrative costs associated with notifications, $132 million in costs because upgrades couldn't occur leading to losses or costs in other areas, and $14 million in costs for delays in construction.
AMTA said that rather than helping communities, the Bills would only cause harm.
"The legislative effect of each of the two Bills is to create a system that makes the cost of gaining approval to build new towers or upgrade existing towers prohibitively expensive, and runs the risk of substantial underinvestment in mobile telecommunications services in Australia going forward," AMTA said.
Despite numerous submissions from industry against the legislation, the vast majority of the 69 submissions to the inquiry are in favour of the Bill, with residents in communities across Australia voicing their concerns about health and environmental impacts.
"Legislation needs to be changed today to provide protection for all in the community and the environment," one submission stated. "I strongly encourage change to legislation that favours telcos in all areas, so that rate payers have some form of protection against this present injustice."
It is unclear whether the legislation will gain the support of the Labor Government. This morning, Labor MP Harry Jenkins resigned as speaker of the House of Representatives and was replaced by Liberal MP Peter Slipper, effectively giving Labor one extra vote in the House of Representatives, meaning Wilkie's support of the government is no longer required in order to sustain the minority government.