Vodafone focusing on roaming, USO, spectrum

Vodafone Australia has said the three 'pressing' issues in the telecommunications industry are domestic roaming, spectrum allocation, and the USO.

The federal government needs to fine tune its spectrum allocation process, come through with Universal Service Obligation (USO) reforms, and declare wholesale mobile domestic roaming in order for Australia not to "fall behind" the global telecommunications standard, Vodafone CEO Inaki Berroeta has said.

These three topics could unlock "enormous economic, social, and technological potential" by providing ubiqoutus coverage across Australia if addressed correctly, Berroeta said at the Charles Todd Oration in Sydney on Wednesday afternoon.

Calling it the "hot topic" of the industry, Berroeta said responses to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) enquiry into whether to declare wholesale domestic mobile roaming have been "bordering on hysterical".

"We need to step back from the emotion, threats, and scare tactics, and look at the long-term opportunity in a rational, fact-based manner," Berroeta said.

"The bottom line is, the opportunities for infrastructure duplication drop off dramatically outside metropolitan areas as distances increase and population density decreases. In these areas, the only sustainable, long-term way to balance incentives for infrastructure investment and competition is infrastructure sharing."

Berroeta argued that despite "emotional" responses from Telstra and Optus to the contrary, there is no evidence that a declaration of domestic roaming would decrease investment in mobile infrastructure.

"Contrary to what some will have you believe, the sky won't fall in," he said.

"I have to say, I am puzzled as to why the incumbent's infrastructure is seen by some as somehow sacred."

On the USO, which Vodafone has been fighting against for several years, Berroeta said Vodafone is "very pleased" that the government is now looking into the matter.

"What we have here in Australia is hundreds of millions of dollars a year being paid to the incumbent to supply a plain old copper telephony service. That's despite the fact that several different technologies have been available for many years which could also deliver this service -- fibre, mobile, fixed-wireless, and satellite," the chief executive said.

"That's despite the copper network servicing the same areas that billions of dollars has been spent deploying NBN fixed-wireless and satellite services."

Berroeta has previously argued that the USO -- which mandates Telstra as the fixed-line phone service provider of last resort, giving the telco hundreds of millions of dollars each year for the installation and maintenance of fixed-line services -- should have its funding redistributed to a permanent mobile blackspot program.

The USO is now facing government reform thanks to the Regional Telecommunications Independent Review, which made 12 recommendations on how the government can improve regional access to telco services to leverage connectivity for business, education, health, and personal purposes.

While he did not address the Australian government's decision last week to auction off 2x 15MHz of the 700MHz spectrum band that went unsold during the 2013 digital dividend auction following Vodafone Australia's proposal to buy the spectrum for AU$571,814,450 upfront, Berroeta did express uncertainty that the federal government is focused on long-term benefits to the industry; rather, it seems to be taking a "fragmented" approach to spectrum allocation.

"Ironically, competition limits sometimes fail even to ensure fair competition in the allocation of spectrum," he argued.

"The 5G standard internationally is about to be defined. The band most likely to be used for initial 5G services across multiple geographies is the 3.4 to 3.7GHz band. That means that the ecosystem of 5G equipment and devices will operate on this band.

"However, a large portion of this band in Australia has been set aside in metropolitan areas for the NBN to deliver services to just 80,000 premises at the fringe of metro areas."

Berroeta said Vodafone is itself "well advanced" in its 5G plans, having last week conducted a public lab trial at the University of Technology Sydney in partnership with network technology giant Nokia last week, demonstrating throughput speeds of up to 5Gbps.

The lab trial, announced by Berroeta in August, was conducted across the 4.5GHz spectrum band, with 200MHz cell bandwidth.

"We are in the planning phase for future network architecture and platforms, and participating in demonstrations with our vendors," Berroeta said on Wednesday.

"I hear a lot of debate around whether 5G will eventually make fixed broadband technology redundant. But it doesn't make sense to talk about 5G and fixed broadband as competing, or even separate, services. We should be taking an 'always-on' approach."

Berroeta also used the speech to make the announcement that Vodafone will be entering the National Broadband Network (NBN) market as a retail service provider before the end of 2017.

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