Vodafone uses NBN to extend its mobile coverage

Vodafone will fulfil its blackspot program obligations by relying on NBN infrastructure, after also arguing in favour of infrastructure sharing through mobile domestic roaming.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

Vodafone Australia has announced that it will utilise National Broadband Network (NBN) infrastructure to fulfil its obligations under the federal government's mobile blackspots program by activating NBN's first wholesale cell site next week.

NBN's Cell Site Access Service (CSAS) product will allow Vodafone to use NBN's towers and fibre services by installing additional antennas, and will be switched on next week in Molong, New South Wales.

The connectivity will be enabled through use of NBN's point of interconnect in Dubbo.

"We are competing vigorously to improve and expand our service in regional Australia," Vodafone Australia CEO Inaki Berroeta said.

"By working with government and participating in the mobile blackspots program, we are seeking to expand access to mobile coverage for regional Australians to help deliver all of the economic and social benefits it enables."

Vodafone said using the NBN network to switch on a blackspot area would provide coverage to customers living within the 155 square kilometre radius.

"The good thing about this is not just that we are helping to deliver a new service for end users, but also that we offering customers new products to help them extend their portfolio and spread their networks," NBN chief customer officer John Simon said.

"The NBN CSAS product also offers additional potential for operators including other wireless applications such as deployment of Wi-Fi or small cell coverage."

Vodafone, the telecommunications carrier with the least network coverage across rural and remote Australia, has been a major proponent of sharing infrastructure in order to extend its own mobile network at minimal cost, also pushing reform to the universal service obligation (USO), butting heads with Telstra and Optus on the wholesale mobile domestic roaming issue -- whereby Vodafone would be permitted to piggyback off Telstra's mobile infrastructure -- and competing against its rivals to take part in the federal government's mobile blackspot program.

Vodafone will build out just four mobile base stations under round two of the mobile blackspots program, after being responsible for 70 under round one, and is also investing AU$9 million of its own funding in constructing 32 new mobile base stations across the country.

By comparison, Optus will be building 114 new mobile sites under round two, while Telstra is responsible for 148, down from the 429 it was allocated under round one.

Vodafone earlier this week again argued in favour of infrastructure sharing, saying that it has seen "enthusiastic" uptake "in virtually every other country".

"There's a couple of things [that should change], but I think all of them fall into the category of infrastructure sharing, and it always struck me after working for 10 years on 25 other Vodafone countries to see the extent of enthusiastic infrastructure sharing that had lowered the cost of deployment and therefore increased incentives for infrastructure investment, while also preserving and creating competition," Vodafone chief strategy officer Dan Lloyd said on Wednesday.

"It really strikes me that in Australia, the country -- because we've got 7.6 million square kilometres and a population density outside the cities of below one -- that most needs infrastructure sharing has some of the least infrastructure sharing."

The government failed in one of its objectives for the blackspot program, which was to give preferential collocation and preferential transmission pricing, Lloyd added, as Telstra is not collocating other providers on its new sites.

"The implementation of that has failed to deliver that second objective ... the 429 Telstra sites in round one, as we understand, there are virtually none that have other operators collocated," Lloyd claimed.

"We think that's a huge opportunity lost for 150,000 square kilometres."

Despite Vodafone's announcement on Friday that it will be using NBN infrastructure to extend its own network, Lloyd also criticised the NBN -- instead encouraging the network expansions of companies such as Red WiFi, which has been rolling out a 15-25Mbps fixed-wireless service to NBN customers who are unhappy with being on NBN's Sky Muster satellite service.

"Again, this goes to the point of competition; there must be a role for, and there should be incentives for competition so that we don't end up with a single inflexible model where NBN tells people what technology they get and they have no alternatives," he said.

The Productivity Commission's draft report into the USO, released in December, showed that although Vodafone claims to have 96 percent of the Australian population covered by its network, or 23 million people, only 7.5 percent of the continent's landmass is covered.

By contrast, Optus claims 98.5 percent population coverage and covers 15.6 percent of the nation, while Telstra's 99.3 percent of the population amounts to covering more than 31 percent of the landmass with its mobile network.

Vodafone in October announced that it would be entering the NBN market as a retail service provider before the end of 2017.

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