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Optus boosts WA coverage with satellite small cells

Mobile coverage in Western Australia will improve thanks to the small cells being installed along a 2,000km stretch of highway by Optus in an effort to bring 3G and 4G to remote areas.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

Optus has announced extending mobile coverage along the Highway 1 route in Western Australia by using nine small cells that utilise Optus' satellite services rather than having to build out additional mobile towers.

The small cells will be located at the Billabong Roadhouse, Overlander Roadhouse, Wooramel Roadhouse, Minilya Roadhouse, Nanutarra Roadhouse, Fortescue River Roadhouse, Pardoo Roadhouse, Sandfire Roadhouse, and 80 Mile Beach, Western Australia.

"We are investing significantly to strengthen and broaden our mobile network coverage in regional areas, and this rollout is a natural progression following the small cell infrastructure that was successfully delivered in the Northern Territory," said acting managing director of Optus Networks Dennis Wong.

"We've seen that this technology delivers a choice in mobile services for workers and residents in and around key locations, as well as providing much needed capacity for visitors, making it a vital improvement to our network in remote regions."

Optus' small cell technology provides mobile phone coverage to up to 3km surrounding the cell, and is used in regional and remote areas where it is not economically viable to build out mobile infrastructure.

The WA small cell rollout follows Optus in August announcing the extension of mobile coverage across 12 Northern Territory regions using the same technology.

The NT small cells are located in Mataranka, Daly Waters, Ormiston Pound Ranger Station, Elliott, Renner Springs, Three Ways, Barkly Homestead, Wycliffe Well, Barrow Creek, Ti Tree, Erldunda, and Curtin Springs, and were installed after Optus' successful trial of small cells in Oodnadatta, South Australia.

"As the only Australian telco to own and operate mobile, fixed, and satellite networks, this is a terrific initiative for Optus to leverage our expertise and introduce an innovative mobile and satellite technology solution to support our continued network expansion across Australia," Paul Sheridan, Optus Satellite VP, said at the time.

"The use of small cells allow for the efficient provision of telecommunications services in difficult and often costly locations. While quite common in highly populous CBDs, we believe this is an excellent way to deploy this type of technology to deliver services to areas that are remote and geographically challenging."

Optus' satellite division owns the largest number of satellites covering Australia and New Zealand, with six satellites in orbit providing coverage to the region.

While both Optus and the Australian government's National Broadband Network (NBN) rely on satellite coverage for connecting those living in remote areas, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) has come out and said NBN's satellite technology is unsuitable for telehealth, as it does not provide high enough data allowances and speeds.

"Regional and rural communities already face a range of disadvantages when compared to their city counterparts," AMA vice president Tony Bartone said last week.

"Many regional and remote areas have very poor internet connections, with relatively small download allowances, and at a much higher cost and slower speed than the services available in our cities."

NBN's Sky Muster satellite service provides speeds of up to 25/5Mbps and data allowances of 150GB per month, with an additional 50GB download per month for distance education students.

The AMA said it is specifically calling on the federal government to "Develop measures to prioritise or optimise the broadband capacity available by satellite for hospitals and medical practices, either by exempting or allocating higher data allowance quotas, or by providing a separate data allowance", as well as extending its fibre, cable, and fixed-wireless network footprints.

Mobile coverage should also be increased where possible, according to the AMA.

In December, the Australian government also announced that Optus will be building 114 new mobile sites -- 49 small cells and 65 base stations -- in remote areas, and investing AU$36.4 million as part of round two of the mobile blackspot program.

"Real investment in regional and remote telecommunications services is the only sustainable way to improve competition, and strength and breadth of coverage in regional Australia," Optus vice president of corporate and regulatory affairs David Epstein said at the end of last year.

Under round two, Telstra will build 148 3G and 4G mobile base stations -- significantly fewer than the 429 mobile towers and small cells in 135 locations Telstra is responsible for under the first round of the blackspot program.

Telstra had activated 60 of its blackspot small cells as of August, providing approximately 20,000 kilometres of new or improved coverage throughout New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Victoria, and Western Australia.

In total, round one will see Telstra build out 429 cell towers while Vodafone builds out 70, with the full rollout to be completed within three years.

The Victorian government on Monday also revealed that 30 of the 109 mobile base stations under round one have been constructed and activated in Victoria, with a further 26 sites expected to be running by mid-2017.

The blackspot program will boost Victoria's regional economy by around AU$120 million per year, according to the state government, as well as improving access to mobile coverage for emergency services, with the government having worked with public services agencies to prioritise which towns should have access boosted first.

"Having mobile coverage is a lifeline for people in rural Victoria. Being better connected is essential for public safety, tourism, primary production, business growth, and access to health and education services," said Victorian Minister for Regional Development Jaala Pulford.

"We have worked with Emergency Management Victoria, councils, and community groups to prioritise towns and districts that need better connections the most, and we will continue to advocate for them."

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