Digital divide not necessarily solved through domestic roaming

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) recently announced an investigation into whether telecommunications companies should be forced to provide domestic mobile roaming services to all Australians.

The announcement follows the release of a report from the Australian National Audit Office which determined that the Federal Government lacked appropriate method in the first rollout of the Black Spot Programme and that some areas were funded that already had adequate coverage.

The ACCC also advised they had received an increasing number of complaints from people in rural areas who said they could not get coverage outside regional centres unless they were customers of Telstra.

WAFarmers Chief Executive Officer Stephen Brown said there was no reason why people living in rural and regional areas should still be struggling to connect to mobile and internet services, given the rate of technological advances.

“For people living in cities or areas with reliable mobile coverage, connectivity can be seen as a given rather than a privilege, and it is this distinction that people need to understand when looking at the effectiveness of current and future mobile services for people living outside urban areas,” Mr Brown said.

“Access to reliable telecommunications services is critical not only for social interaction but also for business success, personal safety and education services, but if funds are not being allocated to the areas most in need then the effectiveness of the Black Spot Programme can unfortunately be called into question.

“For a state as vast as Western Australia, the need for reliable telecommunications services cannot be overstated.”

Mr Brown said WAFarmers would welcome the opportunity to comment on this issue, but stated that domestic mobile roaming would not necessarily be the best outcome in bridging the digital divide between rural and urban areas, nor would it allow for greater market competition.

“Regulating the industry through roaming may well reward carriers who have not invested in the regions rather than attract new investment to grow coverage, simply because that incentive to expand will be gone when telcos see their competitors are hitching a ride on their networks without investing,” he explained.

“Carriers are already able to co-locate on one another’s infrastructure but some have invested in regional WA more heavily than others, so you can see why companies would be hesitant to invest in costly coverage expansion programs through domestic roaming if they know their competitors will benefit from the service without committing to the capital costs.

“Also, by enforcing regulation of mobile roaming, telecommunications companies would be provided with further reason not to invest in regions, which is the opposite of what is needed for people living in rural areas.

“While the full effects of a domestic roaming service are yet to be determined, we welcome the ACCC’s inquiry and hope to provide comment on this.”

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