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Australian wireless broadband market sees saturation: ACCC

​After years of growth, mobile handset and wireless broadband subscription levels are starting to reach saturation levels in Australia, according to the Australian competition watchdog.
Written by Leon Spencer, Contributor

In its annual telecommunications reports for 2013-14, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) revealed that wireless broadband subscriptions in Australia fell by 3 percent during the period, despite an increase in usage.

The reports, which were tabled in parliament on Thursday, revealed that the number of mobile phone subscribers remained flat over 2013-14, increasing by less than 1 percent during the year.

At the same time, the country is seeing more usage from mobile devices, with mobile handset downloads in the June 2014 quarter double the levels in the same quarter in 2013.

Australians downloaded significantly more data during the year across all platforms, with fixed-line broadband accounting for 93 percent of all data downloaded, the same as in the previous year, the report said.

While new mobile broadband subscriptions decreased slightly in 2013-14, consumer complaints to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (ITO) about excess data charges increased by 27 percent, to 14,534 complaints during the year.

The TIO also received 3,982 new complaints about National Broadband Network (NBN)-related matters, over issues such as connection delays, faults, and missed appointments.

Overall, however, the TIO received 12 percent fewer complaints in the year ending June 2014, to 139,000, its lowest level in six years. Likewise, the ACCC itself received 13 percent fewer complaints about the industry than in the prior year, to 2,474.

Although mobile services still accounted for the majority of telecommunications complaints in 2013-14, complaints about mobile services decreased by 21 percent over the year.

The TIO received about 55 percent fewer complaints about mobile coverage compared to the previous year. This fall coincides with significant investment in mobile infrastructure and the migration of many mobile customers to 4G networks.

In fact, strong investment in 4G mobile network rollouts by the country's major telcos did not appear to impact competition-driven decreases in prices paid by consumers for telecommunications services, which fell by 2.7 percent in real terms in 2013-14.

The average real prices of landline and mobile voice calls have now fallen by around 50 percent since 1997-98. Broadband customers are also seeing larger data allowances, faster speeds, and lower prices.

In 2013-14, the average real prices paid for fixed-voice services declined by 5.2 percent, significantly more than the decline in 2012-13 of 3.2 percent, while the average real price paid for all types of internet services fell by 2.2 percent during the period, significantly greater than the 0.9 percent reduction in 2012-13.

ACCC chairman Rod Sims put the price decreases over the year down to vigorous competition in the sector.

"Competition is driving substantive reductions in the price of telecommunications services, significant infrastructure investment to improve the quality and coverage of services, and technological innovation," said Sims. "Consumers are seeing lower prices and improved services as a result of the vigorous competition that began in the 1990s."

The report also highlights the pivotal role that the NBN is expected to play in the future of Australia's telecommunications industry, along with the structural mechanisms surrounding its implementation.

"The deployment of the NBN continues to be the most significant infrastructure development in the fixed-line market," the report said.

It suggested that the key aspects of achieving structural reform promoting future competition in Australia's telecommunications industry includes a wholesale-only NBN, subject to effective regulation; the structural separation of Telstra; and the imposition of wholesale-only open access requirements on all other monopoly providers of fixed-line telecommunications services.

However, it also said that a number of challenges will inevitably arise in the migration of fixed-line internet services to the NBN.

The ACCC's assertion that the NBN will play a significant and central role in Australia's telecommunications future comes as the federal government's latest five-yearly Intergenerational Report, released on Wednesday, pinned Australia's productivity future on new and emerging technology, while making no mention of the NBN.

According to the ACCC, fibre subscriptions grew 77 percent in the year to June 2014, driven by the take-up of NBN services, while the number of activated NBN fibre internet connections increased 415 percent in brownfield areas during the year, and 249 percent in greenfield areas.

The report also mentions three inquiries carried out by the ACCC during the year about whether to continue to regulate declared fixed-line and mobile services.

The ACCC's decision to continue regulating these services will support continuing competition and efficient investment, the report said, indicating that the authority will be setting regulated prices for these services in 2014-15.

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