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Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Canberra amends laws allowing telcos to deploy cells on wheels during emergencies

Meanwhile, Labor has proposed that free internet access be given to students so they can learn online during the coronavirus pandemic.

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The federal government has amended legislation to allow telco carriers to deploy temporary facilities, including cells on wheels and networks on wheels, as "low-impact facilities" in certain circumstances such as during emergencies, events, peak holiday periods, and the maintenance or replacement of existing facilities.

Under the amended Telecommunications (Low-impact Facilities) Determination 2018 and the Telecommunications Code of Practice 2018, telco carriers would only be able to deploy these temporary facilities if they complied with strict safeguards and conditions. These include time limits on how long a facility can be deployed, height limits, and rules on where the facility can be located.

Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts Paul Fletcher said on Thursday the changes mean telcos will be able to better their networks. 

"This summer's severe bushfires demonstrated the importance of telecommunications carriers making use of their temporary network assets to provide quality services to Australian families and businesses," he said.

"In the aftermath of the bushfires, when safe to do so, the telcos deployed temporary facilities to keep impacted communities connected.

"These changes to telecommunications regulations make it more efficient for them to do so in future and provide the telcos more flexibility to respond quickly in rapidly changing circumstances."

The amendments also clarify the definition of a radiocommunications facility and have also included recommendations made by the now-Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation. 

Further down under, New Zealand telco Spark said that it is also looking to deploy cells on wheels to cope with the network congestion that certain mobile towers have experienced due to the growing number of people working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The telco said its daytime broadband load has almost doubled, with peak broadband demand hitting 27% above normal levels, while mobile peak traffic is 22% higher. 

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Meanwhile, the Australian Labor Party has proposed that students who do not currently have access to the internet at home, be given free access to the national broadband network for the next 12-24 months.

Under the proposed scheme, the federal government would partner with a single retail provider and NBN to provide a reverse wholesale rebate for the period to support an AU$0 retail price to eligible households such as schools and local community and welfare organisations.

"The small proportion of eligible households means incentives can be delivered in a targeted, responsible and compassionate manner to achieve a social and economic good," Shadow Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland and Shadow Minister for Education and Training Tanya Plibersek said in a joint statement on Wednesday.
 
"At a time when broadband has become a critical link between students, parents and their teachers, action is needed to ensure no child is left behind.
 
"This will build on good work being done by some state governments to provide laptops and other devices to support distance learning."

Earlier this week, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) granted an interim authorisation for NBN and five retailers -- Telstra, Optus, TPG, Vodafone, and Vocus -- to create a working group to handle network congestion and coordinate financial support during the coronavirus pandemic.

In its application for authorisation, NBN sought a six-month approval beyond its standard network delivery objectives, to give greater or priority access to groups such as health and education centres, the elderly, or vulnerable people in rural and remote areas; the ability to restrict the supply of "certain hardware and services" depending on location or certain customers or customer groups; as well as to be able to share generic customer information, demand forecasts, and logistics information.

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