Much ado about mobile blackspots and coverage sore spots

Australia's telcos continue to bicker about coverage, while the Coalition promises AU$100 million in a vain attempt to plug the hole.

The boasting between telcos about the size of their respective mobile networks is almost as nauseating as their boasts about peak speeds on 4G.

Late last week, Telstra CEO David Thodey said that the company deserves a premium on the prices it charges for its mobile services because Telstra's mobile network is double the size of its closest rival, Optus. Telstra claims its network is 2.1 million square kilometres, while it says Optus' is 1.1 million square kilometres.

Optus disagrees with the way Telstra measures network size, which excludes external antennas, but broadly under that measurement, the estimation of Optus' network size is accurate.

Curiously, Vodafone has this week withdrawn from its advertising about its brand spanking new 3G network a claim that the network covers 1.7 million square kilometres of the country, which the company said is the size of Spain, France, Germany, and Italy combined. The claim would put Vodafone's network size well above Optus' network, despite the company entering a roaming agreement with Optus to utilise its towers in regional Australia to improve Vodafone's overall network coverage.

After last month, Telstra sent a legal letter to Vodafone over Vodafone's claims about its 4G network speed, it is understood that the two companies have again clashed over the network size claim, and Vodafone has now removed the claim from its promotional material and its website.

A Vodafone spokesperson told ZDNet that the claim was removed because the network size claims weren't "resonating" with customers.

While Vodafone wouldn't confirm whether the measurement was inaccurate, the company does have a point with the network size being of no use to customers.

The difficulty with measuring Australia's telecommunications networks in terms of square kilometres is that it is not a realistic measurement of whether we can expect to get services in any particular area of the country. Australians are a clustered bunch, with the vast majority of us living in the major cities or regional centres.

While there might be 1 million square kilometres in difference between Telstra's network coverage and Optus' network coverage, the reality is that the difference between the two networks in terms of population covered is only around 1 percent.

But we're also far from stationary, and as we travel long distances across the country, we're bound to run into mobile coverage blackspots in places that might see a lot of people travel through, but seldom ever have anyone residing there. Like highways, for example.

The Coalition's announcement this week for an AU$100 million investment in fixing up these mobile blackspots across Australia was generally welcomed by the industry. The Coalition would, if it wins the September election, fund up to 50 percent of the cost for the new towers, hoping for the industry to at least match the investment.

The interesting part of the announcement was that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said that it is based on the Western Australia contract with Telstra , meaning it would likely fund between around 200 and 250 new towers.

That might sound like a lot, but for comparison, Telstra is currently in the process of expanding its 4G network to 1,500 towers by the end of the year to increase its 4G network coverage from 66 percent to 85 percent of the population.

The overall percentage of people that will be affected by the government investment is very small, but 250 towers will go a long way toward addressing those blackspots if the telecommunications companies agree to stump up the cash. One potential deterrent will be that the new towers will likely be located in areas where it is harder to justify the investment due to the lower population in those blackspots. If the telcos aren't willing to pay their share, the Coalition may be forced to increase its investment in the towers.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd responded to the announcement by pointing out that the plan had not been costed, and could potentially cost much more than Abbott had expected.

"His assumption is, I think, that with his AU$100 million uncosted and unaccounted for allocation, that that's going to remove those problems. Now frankly, it's much bigger than that."

That's without even mentioning the possibility of the Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) residents complaining about 250 new towers across the country.

Although the funding for this project has not yet been accounted for in the Coalition's budget, Abbott said that he would fight to keep the policy if the Coalition wins the election because he wants "to be known as a prime minister who keeps commitments".

Rudd went on to claim that the current government is "working [its] way through the blackspots as they arise". The Australian government has not invested any money in addressing mobile blackspots since it came to power in 2007, except with NBN Co entering an agreement with Telstra and Optus to share tower infrastructure.

The claim was picked up by Shadow Communications Malcolm Turnbull, who again accused Rudd of being a liar.

"You're telling lies about telecommunications again," Turnbull said.

"You're saying your government has been spending money on rectifying mobile phone blackspots. Well, you know you haven't. Not a cent in six years."

Rudd indicated that he would have "further to say" on mobile blackspots, indicating that a "me too" policy could be delivered by the new regional communications minister Sharon Bird any day now.

If we can hope for anything out of the proposed policy, it will be that the scheme would be open access to the towers, meaning all the telcos could then expand their network footprints and boast about their supposed network reach.

If customers actually care about it, that is.