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Regional NBN services targeted by government report

Mobile broadband, telco, and NBN services need to be improved in regional and remote areas, according to a report tabled in the Australian Parliament.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

The Australian government has tabled its report on regional telecommunications services in Parliament, finding that safeguards must be put in place to ensure remote areas are given equal access to mobile phone and National Broadband Network (NBN) services.

The Regional Telecommunications Review 2015 [PDF], tabled on Thursday afternoon, made 12 recommendations on how the government can improve regional access to telco services to leverage connectivity for business, education, health, and personal purposes.

"People living in regional Australia rely heavily on telecommunications in their everyday lives, and the government will give careful consideration to the committee's recommendations before providing a response," said Minister for Communications Mitch Fifield.

The 12 recommendations involved: Managing demand and prioritising traffic on NBN's satellite service; increasing the flexibility of NBN satellite services for retail service providers and providing data usage alerts; extending the NBN fixed-wireless footprint to reduce satellite customer numbers; the federal government co-investing with state governments and telcos to upgrade public safety wireless networks; and requiring telco services to be deployed or upgraded whenever other infrastructure development occurs.

Also recommended was making information about under-utilised regional assets such as dark fibre more transparent; allowing NBN to use satellite backhaul and terrestrial backhaul in regional areas; developing a technology-neutral consumer communications standard for data and voice services; establishing a Consumer Communication Fund; continuing information delivery from the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) to help consumers make informed choices; providing better information on the NBN rollout and technologies being used; and reporting further on regional telco availability and affordability.

The NBN has previously come under fire for not providing equal access to telco services for regional and remotes areas, due to the high cost of satellite services, the low data allowances provided under these services, and the low speeds inherent in satellite and fixed-wireless broadband networks.

"Under the Coalition, the quality of your broadband will be determined by your location," argued Shadow Assistant Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland in September.

Fixed wireless and satellite will each cover 5 percent and 3 percent of Australian premises, respectively, once the rollout is complete in 2020.

NBN has also revealed that it will be deploying fibre-to-the-distribution-point connections for premises that are located more than 1 kilometre from a node in its FttN rollout.

"If there is a copper loop length that goes too far beyond the 25Mbps capability -- so call that roughly 1km -- then what we would do is first look to see if we can bundle pairs together, because then you get a better attenuation and a higher signal that gives you the higher speeds," NBN CEO Bill Morrow said during Senate Estimates on Tuesday night.

Recognising the lack of affordable access in remote areas, NBN brokered a deal with Optus' satellite division in February last year, with the federal government providing millions of dollars in funding for the project.

NBN launched the first of its two AU$620 million Ka-band satellites on October 1, with commercial services availability expected within the first six months of 2016. The second satellite is planned for launch in 2016.

The two new satellites will enable high-speed broadband access for remote areas and will replace the interim satellite service put in place by the former Labor government -- which has seen so many sign-ups that broadband speeds for satellite customers slowed to a crawl.

The new satellite service, once launched, will have each IP address' usage capped to prevent capacity being outstripped by demand again.

"We will institute a new stringent fair use policy to ensure a minority of very heavy users cannot crowd out the majority," Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in March last year.

Deena Shiff, director of the Regional Telecommunications Independent Review Committee, argued last month that it is unfair to criticise heavy users of satellite services, as it is their only link to broadband, while those living in urban areas can spread their usage over several plans and internet access points.

"A satellite user is going to be paying a lot more. In practice, where there's choice of offerings, clearly, you will shop around for the best offer and you will optimise your usage between Wi-Fi, VoIP, fixed, and mobile. And that opportunity simply doesn't exist for a lot of regional users," she said at the annual ACCAN national conference in Sydney.

"When people talk about data hogs on satellite, it's a bit offensive because they rely so much on communications for their basic needs, and also their business use and their consumer use within a homestead is really sitting within the one plan, so they tend naturally to be above the average users."

Despite this cap, Gavin Williams, general manager of fixed wireless and satellite at NBN, said speeds will still be significantly higher for remote users than any service they have seen before.

"This does represent a very significant investment. It's the biggest deal so far for communications in the bush. It'll offer wholesale speeds up to 25Mbps down, 5Mbps up; it's the best consumer broadband service by far that's ever been available in these areas," Williams said.

Williams also pointed towards NBN initiatives that are aimed at providing internet access for Indigenous communities, saying the company is piloting a Wi-Fi hotspot trial in several remote communities in the Northern Territory wherein members of a community could share internet access at a single point.

"We're committed to giving regional and remote Australia world-class broadband," he said.

In terms of education, a distance education working group has been established in Canberra to examine how the new NBN satellites could be leveraged to improve distance education.

"One of the things NBN is looking at is: Could you use the long-term satellite when it launches next year, take advantage of the fact that the customer equipment will have multiple ports?" former Parliamentary Secretary for Communications Paul Fletcher said recently.

"So over the first port, you'd have your standard consumer-grade service, and over the second port, that could be set aside for an education network, which is administered in each state by the relevant education department.

On Wednesday, Vodafone Australia CEO Inaki Berroeta also outlined regional expansion plans to bring telecommunications services competition across all areas of the country in an effort to improve choice and therefore pricing for those living in remote areas.

According to the chief executive, Vodafone's 4G network now reaches 97 percent of the Australian metropolitan population, with plans to have its entire network 4G-enabled by Q1 2016. He also detailed Vodafone's involvement in the government's mobile blackspots program, which aims to expand Australia's mobile networks to improve regional and remote coverage.

"The mobile blackspot program is a great step forward towards giving customers in regional areas better coverage, and often, for the first time, the opportunity to choose a mobile provider. Choice results in better and lower prices, which means improved productivity for farmers and businesses," he said, speaking at an American Chamber of Commerce in Australia (AmCham) event in Sydney on Wednesday.

"On the mobile blackspot program ... we've been increasing our network in New South Wales, Tasmania, Queensland, Western Australia, and also Victoria. I think one of the biggest areas of potential of this program is the requirement for winning bidders to look at co-investing in mobile towers and shared transmission links with other mobile network operators. Sharing of infrastructure simply makes sense. It helps operators to save costs, and helps consumers by extending coverage and competition."

Berroeta warned that without competition in regional areas, Australia will be left behind by the global digital revolution.

"Mobile technology has a big part to play in building a productive and truly national digital economy. By optimising the use of next-generation mobility, we can leverage Australia's strengths in industries such as agriculture, education, transport, healthcare, and tourism," Berroeta said.

"It is well understood that telecommunications is a critical area of the economy. It can drive jobs, innovation, and productivity, but a lack of competition and innovation in the sector will hold the economy back.

"Currently, in Australia, we have two classes of mobile customers: Those with access to coverage and choice of provider in metropolitan areas, and those without in many regional and rural areas.

"The cost of lack of competition in the telco market across Australia is AU$3.1 billion each year. That's AU$3.1 billion which could be driving growth, but instead, it's threatening the government's worthy aspirations of a world-leading digital economy."

In a similar viewpoint presented in the report on regional telecommunications, Berroeta also recommended that the Universal Service Obligation be reformed.

"Vodafone urges the government to prioritise reform of the Universal Service Obligation, which currently sees around AU$300 million in taxpayer money each year spent on preserving outdated voice services and preventing competition by increasing the dominance of one player."

Vodafone recently signed a AU$900 million, 15-year dark fibre deal with Australia's number three fixed-line operator, TPG, which will see TPG build out an extra 4,000km of fibre to connect Vodafone's cell towers across Australia by mid-2018 in an effort to reach more customers.

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