UNWIRED REVOLUTION, COMMSDAY CONFERENCE

I acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional custodians of this place.

I also thank Graheme Lynch and Comms Day – the organisers of this conference

Between 6AM and 8AM this morning some 3 million Australians checked their phones immediately after they woke up.

Tonight around  two million Australians will check a phone within five minutes of going to sleep. 

During the day, they expect their devices to move seamlessly from home to work and in public places, across platforms driven by speed, efficiency, reliability and cost of the data they are transferring.

I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you today.

It’s a chance to outline some of the areas of principle for Labor as we look towards extending the reach, quality and use of our mobile communications networks.

The Australian telecommunications market has transformed and it is transforming us profoundly. There are more providers supplying more users with more devices over more platforms with more applications than we could ever have imagined.

It is difficult to imagine a technology that has contributed more than mobile telephony as it evolved from voice, through the simple data services of SMS to mobile broadband.

The stuff that was previously science fiction and Saturday morning cartoons is now real: Dick Tracey, the Jetsons and the Blade Runner have stepped out of our TV sets and into reality through SMART Watches, voice activated machines and autonomous vehicles.

Ten years ago, only 10% of Australians had no home landline. Now there are approximately 6.7 million mobile services in use and around 31% of Australians now have no fixed landline at home. 

Fixed-line networks still carry the lion’s share of internet traffic in Australia – 92% which is nearly 3.5 million terabytes over the December quarter and this is increasing at a rate of between 30 to 40% per annum.

This vast number will explode with 5G and IoT devices.

Mobile telephony has also transformed the workforce and the economy.

Employees are more productive. They can work from anywhere, access and input data from anywhere, improving customer service, reducing travel time, accelerating and improving decision making.

More workers are also able to participate in the workforce who would previously couldn’t.  It is no longer unusual to see a worker  their child as they arrive home from school. 

Mobile broadband has also become the standard means by which Australians access government and business services and for businesses to engage with customers

In emergency situations, almost 70 per cent of emergency calls are made from mobile phones.

It is precisely because being connected, and being connected to a wireless device has had such a transformative effect on everything, that the lack of connectivity is a new frontier in the battle against inequality.

If you aren’t connected it’s harder to get a job, or keep one. It’s harder to get a customer or keep one. It’s harder to enter a market or stay there.

The absence of connectivity has a profound effect on social and economic inclusion and in many parts of the country it could, literally be a matter of life or death.

This is why as a nation we need to continue to invest in both fixed line and mobile networks and why both networks continue to be complimentary.

While the Labors’ investment will continue to focus heavily on completing and improving a first-rate NBN we must also improve mobile connectivity.

 

Learning from the Problems with the Governments Program

Labor supports a public program for government co-investment in addressing mobile black spots.

In the 2016 Federal Election, Labor pledged to match Coalition funding for a black spots program.

The job of addressing mobile black spots is not complete.

More remains to be done, and we have to become smarter in how we approach it.

Finding flexible and innovative ways to fund better mobile coverage in the regions is not only good for communities and inclusiveness, but it is good for economic growth.

Labor is committed to the task of improving mobile coverage, and we remain committed to the Government playing an active role to fund and facilitate progress where the market will not deliver outcomes.

Given the importance of this area, we will have policy announcements to make on the Mobile Blackspot Program in the lead-up to the next federal election.

Labor’s priority will be to provide a better program by addressing the harsh criticism by the ANAO and Productivity Commission of the Coalitions program which has put political interests above community need in allocating funds.

They have:

  • Wasted resources putting base stations in areas that didn’t improve or extend coverage, or that would have been built anyway.
  • Failed to articulate a clear set of principles or priorities for the allocation of funds
  • Failed to drive competition in regional networks – a stated aim of the policy – with the majority of stations going to the incumbents and only around 15% of publicly funded towers with co-located equipment.  

There are also some emerging issues to consider that are relevant to the design of Labor’s approach.

The withdrawal of several States from the Federal scheme will lead to an increase in average cost (to the Commonwealth) per base station and a lost opportunity to leverage off assets / sites / information they have available to extend coverage in underserviced areas.

There will be increasing cost pressure on building new base stations in more remote or hard to access sites.

It is also very unlikely that, regional / rural / remote areas will be an early priority for 5G rollout, given the commercial priorities of mobile operators will be to focus on more densely populated areas.

Whilst the majority of Government funding has gone towards co-funding of base mobile stations, there are other technologies, which are maturing, that can be used to infill / extend coverage, or provide access to voice services.

These include:

  • Small cells
  • Repeaters / boosters
  • Low orbit satellites

Future policy needs to embrace all of these options.

Labor understands there will be increasing cost pressure on building new base stations in more remote or hard to access sites.

 

Labor’s approach

Labor’s aim is to ensure that people who run a business, reside or holiday in a regional area have the prospect of better access to a mobile phone service.

That’s why Labor is committed to further funding to address this issue and further announcements will be made in the near future about this.

Labor will enshrine the following principles to ensure that this program meets its aims and delivers the best outcomes for regional Australians.

 

Regional Connectivity Plans

We can make Commonwealth, State, Local and private investment go further through a consultative,  cooperative approach. This will deliver better outcomes for communities and will also help us address prioritise emergency services issues.

By working with State Governments, Local Councils, business and emergency service organisations to develop Regional Connectivity Plans, a more strategic approach is possible. 

These plans could leverage off and identify existing public land and infrastructure such as fibre optic networks, wireless towers, light poles in an area that may be accessed to improve coverage.

The objective is to identify:

  • The types of connectivity already available in the region
  • Local, State and Federal government infrastructure and assets in an area and how this may be used to extend connectivity
  • Emergency services, transport, tourism, business and customer needs; and
  • Major businesses operations and their needs for connectivity

This is an approach  examining closely, as it will both complement and build on the programs in place for improved mobile coverage in Victoria, NSW, WA and Qld.

Not all mobile black spots can be addressed at once.

That’s why understanding the priorities will deliver better outcomes.

The development of Regional Connectivity Plans will provide a pipeline of projects for public and private capital with a clear set of principles determining investment priorities.

 

Better information for policy makers

The ACCC has identified the lack of robust and accountable information as a significant market issue and an impediment to Government programs. I agree.

There is no agreed, transparent, national database for mobile network coverage.

The second principle of Labor’s approach concerns how to provide better information for policy makers.

Our knowledge of mobile service coverage, poor coverage and no coverage should be straight forward, but it is not.

There is a lack of transparency and consistency regarding mobile network coverage information for consumers and businesses.

This disproportionately impacts on regional communities.

Mobile Network Operators have the best coverage data on their own networks.

However, the information they provide publicly is not easily comparable between competing companies and therefore difficult to verify at a macro scale. 

In 2014 the Government initiated a Mobile Black Spot database which lists over 10,000 mobile black spots in regional locations.

Sites were nominated by members of the public. 

The database has been closed to new nominations since 2016 and it is likely that there are far more mobile black spots than recorded in it.

There is a public interest in having more robust information.

This information is also relevant to future considerations for reform of the USO, as reliable data can help objectively assess the number of premises in the Satellite or Fixed-Wireless footprint that are without mobile coverage.

There is a public interest in having more comparable coverage data, available to policy makers.

 

Improved competition outcomes

The third principle focus in Labor’s approach will be promoting better competition outcomes.

It is clear there are benefits to be gained by strengthening requirements for co-location of mobile network operators on publicly co-funded base stations where it makes sense to do so.

As IoT unlocks new forms of value for regional Australia, there will be opportunities to examine where public land and other assets can be leveraged in exchange for co-operation among mobile operators.

Interestingly, the ACCC is currently conducting two inquires that have direct implications for mobile black spots, namely, the Domestic transmission capacity service declaration inquiry 2018-2019, and Measures to Address Regional Mobile Issues.

The ACCC also intends to conduct an inquiry into the Facilities Access Code in the near future, and it has already amended its Infrastructure Record Keeping Rules in December 2017.

The ACCC would not be undertaking this action unless it held a view that the competition objective of the Mobile Black Spot Program has largely failed to deliver.

Backhaul is a key component of mobile connectivity in regional Australia and it drives competition outcomes.

Although base stations attract the most public attention – they are the visible bits at the end of the network but without backhaul, most mobile towers are just “poles in a paddock”.

 

Emergency battery back up

Residents and emergency services rely heavily on mobile phones to communicate during natural disasters like bushfires and in emergency situations.

Out of the Mobile Black Spot Program base stations operating for 12 months, there have already been 15,300 emergency calls made on those.

In some bushfire prone areas, the lack of mobile coverage during an emergency hampers efforts to save lives.

At present, Mobile Network Operators provide battery back-up of their mobile base stations on an ‘best endeavours’ basis which varies considerably between operators.

Communities being served by new mobile base stations in bushfire prone areas want to have the peace of mind that a consistent and sufficient level of battery back-up exists to ensure that in the most critical phase of an emergency situation disruption to mobile services are kept to a minimum.

 

Conclusion

We know that digital ecosystems will drive the productivity growth of the next two decades.

If your region is connected you are in the game.

If you are not connected – it’s worse than not having access to the services – your home, your business, your school is literally stranded in the last century.

The purpose of any Government intervention – including a Mobile Black Spot Program – should be to address market failure and to reduce inequality so that the social and economic benefits of the wireless revolution are enjoyed by all Australians.

 

ENDS