Telstra and Optus want mobile blackspot program to consider indoor coverage

As pharmacists in New England have to head to the front door with a payment terminal in hand to complete transactions.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor
Image: Chris Duckett/ZDNet

Australia's two largest mobile network operators want the Australian government to take into account in-building mobile coverage when selecting sites for future rounds of the mobile blackspot program (MBSP).

The Commonwealth is currently consulting on the design of round 5A of the program, having released submissions and a set of draft guidelines on Wednesday, to which interested parties have 14 days to respond.

In its submission, Optus said an issue with the program is that coverage is compared to public maps from telcos, which are measured when a device is outdoors or has an external antenna. Offering an alternative in its submission, the telco suggested a new measurement at -90dBm be used instead.

"[Public coverage maps] should not be used as a means of assessment, since we note that overwhelming feedback during varying Regional Telecommunications Reviews clearly shows a desire for enhanced in-building and in-vehicle (including in-paddock) coverage," Optus said.

"MBSP design should use as part of its criteria 'new handheld coverage at -90dBm' which is an in-building level of radio coverage and addresses the feedback from residents in regional areas.

This view was echoed by Telstra, which said a large percentage of complaints were due to in-building coverage rather than a wider blackspot.

"Around half of the blackspots logged by communities on the government website are either mainly or solely due to poor or absent indoor coverage," the telco said.

"These sites are more spread-out and hence more distant from the homes they're serving than in the metropolitan suburbs and the presence of intervening terrain and trees is more common, all of which reduces the signal that can reach indoors."

An example of how poor in-building coverage can affect one town was submitted by the Guyra and District Chamber of Commerce, a town in the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales. The Chamber said businesses on the main street of the town typically currently only receive one bar or no coverage from Telstra.

"Guyra Pharmacy is an essential service for health and wellbeing in the district. Pharmacy staff frequently have to walk their Eftpos machine to their shop front door or onto the footpath to access the mobile network," it said.

"Other Guyra main street businesses, such as the two supermarkets, a number of cafes, accountants, fuel station, bread shop, hotels, and sundry other businesses are disadvantaged by weak mobile coverage."

Beyond indoor coverage, one of the issues tackled in the submissions was the potential of infrastructure sharing.

Unsurprisingly, Vodafone remains a fan of the idea, but it pointed out there was little value in sharing infrastructure if a gap remained between the new MSBP coverage and the telco's existing footprint.

"Telstra's regional mobile monopoly coverage footprint means there are invariably gaps of potentially hundreds of kilometres between new unique coverage areas and the other operators' own networks," the telco now sitting under TPG Telecom banner said.

"Well-intentioned initiatives to provide new unique coverage under shared RAN [radio access network] models are likely to be substantially undermined unless solutions to the isolated versus contiguous coverage issue are in place."

Equally unsurprising, Telstra was not a fan of sharing infrastructure, saying it was against mandated RAN sharing.

"Active RAN sharing would require all operators to agree to a common network design -- adding unnecessary complexity that could halt or delay a site build or lead to a lower level of service quality for rural and regional customers when compared to urban customers," it said.

"Telstra builds its network to provide industry-leading reliability, speed and performance for our customers and we could not deliver this where other operators must agree to equipment specifications and network design."

The incumbent telco further said shared sites would lag on upgrades and the act of sharing has upfront costs that would offset any savings it could provide. However, the telco said it thought a new sharing model for round 5A where the telcos engaged with each other or third party builders of towers could be used.

"This will allow the sharing of infrastructure costs, lowering the cost to build for each operator, rather than an individual operator having to fully fund each site," the telco said.

"Additionally, it will allow carriers to determine the most efficient method of sharing infrastructure at each site, minimising cost to government whilst encouraging innovation by operators through efficient market driven sharing outcomes.

"In addition to the accelerated facilities access sharing, Telstra also supports increased passive infrastructure sharing (potentially including huts, power and backhaul where feasible) to improve the economics of site deployments for both carriers and government."

Optus put forward a number of options, including having a third party own the infrastructure and equipment.

"The three carriers would have the opportunity of connecting to sites owned and run by the neutral host supplier independently," it said.

"To practically implement this approach, Optus recommends that the government should release a list of all coverage locations it wants in future rounds rather than having an open ended process as in the current program."

The telco also pointed to the model used by the Victorian Regional Rail Connectivity Project, which involved Optus, Telstra, and Vodafone working together to build towers.

"This state-based project should be considered by the federal government for delivery of a more effective operating model for its MBSP that would encourage greater co-building and collaboration involving carriers in areas where they are keen to invest," it said.

Optus added that once a carrier has a contract to build a tower, other telcos do not automatically look to collocate since they likely need a similar level of funding to use the new site.

Adding a further way to lower costs, Vocus said the cost of backhaul from new towers back to telco's core networks was prohibitive in regional areas, particularly fibre backhaul needed for 5G and therefore, a third party could provide open-access backhaul -- something the company said it could offer.

"The deployment of new fibre backhaul constitutes a much higher proportion of the cost of a new mobile tower than RAN equipment, so the economic benefits of fibre backhaul sharing are likely to promote competition outcomes to a greater degree than RAN sharing alone," it said.

"As well as improving the investment case for new base stations in non-commercial areas, backhaul sharing could also deliver auxiliary benefits by driving fibre deeper into regional Australia, improving the business case for further fixed-line and fixed-wireless network deployments to nearby communities."

In Senate Estimates on Wednesday, representatives from the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications said infrastructure sharing during the first four rounds of the MBSP sat at around 22% for some form of sharing.

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