Bush telecommunications needs help with more reforms

The Australian, 3 September 2015.

Vodafone Australia chief Inaki Berroeta.

Vodafone Australia chief Inaki Berroeta.

Recently I drove to Armidale in country NSW to open a new ­Vodafone retail store with the local federal MP and Agriculture Minister, Barnaby Joyce. During the drive I had cause to reflect on the potential for improved mobile telecommunications in regional Australia.

Vodafone will soon be building more than 18 mobile base stations in the region around Armidale, dramatically improving our ­mobile coverage by an extra 2000sq km. This will deliver better mobile coverage and more employment opportunities in the community while giving more choice and competition to local consumers and businesses.

This would not have been possible without the government’s mobile black spot program and the support of the NSW government, which fund not only improvements in mobile coverage but also competition in regional and remote areas where it is severely lacking. The combination of subsidised construction of mobile stations with a requirement on industry to work together to share infrastructure is a major step forward for which both governments deserve significant credit.

Our geography and low population density means there are major challenges in ensuring regional and remote Australians can benefit from a choice of fixed and mobile telco providers.

Many Australian taxpayers would be surprised to learn that over the past decade Telstra has received more than one billion of their dollars to maintain and ­extend its network. There would be a huge outcry if a major supermarket chain received such substantial amounts of taxpayer funds to maintain its market dominance, but such a huge handout to the incumbent telco has gone largely unquestioned.

Further, Telstra charges monopoly prices for other operators to access its fixed transmission links, many of which were built when Telstra was a government-owned monopoly. To build mobile base stations, carriers need to connect to these fixed transmission links to take the voice and data traffic to the rest of the world. But there are some shoots of green; the policy environment is changing. The NBN rollout and the mobile black spot program are solutions

Australia will not achieve its potential, or lift its long-term economic and social wellbeing to its highest level without access to modern telecommunications services at affordable prices.

These are exciting opportunities and we look forward to ­continuing to work with government, industry and consumers to maximise the benefits of more competition and choice in telecommunications for regional and remote Australia.

Inaki Berroeta is the chief executive of Vodafone Australia.

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