The ACCC has started its inquiry into regional mobile infrastructure by publishing its consultation paper (Consultation Paper). Submissions are due on 5 August 2022.
This inquiry is to consider:
- Access to infrastructure for telco purposes: access to towers and associated infrastructure (whether it is owned by telcos or non-telco entities), in regional areas, that can be used in the supply of mobile telecommunications and other radiocommunications services
- Mobile roaming in emergencies: the feasibility of temporary mobile roaming services being provided during natural disasters and other such emergencies
As flagged in our earlier alert, the former Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts, Paul Fletcher, has directed the ACCC to hold a public inquiry into these issues (see the Ministerial Direction).
The Consultation Paper identifies a list of 30 questions as a guide to the matters the ACCC would like to see addressed, however the ACCC will consider all relevant issues raised in submissions.
The questions in the Consultation Paper have been formulated against a policy backdrop of:
- an objective of improving coverage in the regions
- a focus on preserving communications networks during natural disasters
- the divestment by Telstra and Optus of part ownership in the tower networks and some proposed divestment of tower assets by TPG
- the ACCC’s consideration of Telstra and TPG’s application for merger authorisation for their network sharing proposal in regional Australia and urban fringes
The ACCC and the Regional Telecommunications Independent Review Committee have both previously supported a review of the design of co-contribution programs (such as Mobile Blackspots) to promote efficient use of infrastructure, and raised the potential viability of mobile roaming as a safety measure in emergency circumstances.
Key themes of the Consultation Paper
The ACCC wishes to consider:
- the commercial and other fee arrangements required for telco tower access
- the effectiveness of current commercial and regulatory arrangements
- the impact of costs on decisions to invest and provide telco tower access
- the implications of MNOs divesting their tower businesses
- how tower access may affect the provision of greater mobile coverage
- feasibility of providing mobile roaming during natural disasters and emergencies
The 30 questions the ACCC has provided as a guide for those wishing to make a submission are available here. The ACCC has said it will focus on the real-world operating environment for tower access and facilities, and has made it clear it will consider all issues raised in submissions relevant to the inquiry, even if they do not address its guiding questions.
Some key themes coming out of the Consultation Paper are:
- non-telco assets are in-scope: use of assets owned by entities that are not telcos (and where the assets are not currently used for telco purposes) for telecommunications purposes is being considered
- colocation on co-funded mobile sites, in isolation, is unlikely to result in increased competition: the ACCC is concerned that Government investment funding new network infrastructure in rural and regional Australia as part of the Mobile Black Spots Program has not resulted in higher levels of colocation by the MNOs on Mobile Black Spot Program funded sites
- other co-funding models may better promote competition: the ACCC appears to be actively interested in views on the use of neutral host models and active sharing models, and whether carrier access seekers find it easier to negotiate with neutral hosts (as opposed to vertically integrated tower operators)
- desire to understand the impact of structural change in the industry: the impact of the recent high levels of telecommunications tower asset divestment activity, and of proposed infrastructure sharing, is not yet well understood
Reading between the lines: What can we expect from the ACCC more generally in this space
Importantly, the ACCC is required to produce a factual report detailing evidence-based findings, and has not been asked to provide its recommendations to the Government. However, we expect the ACCC is likely to actively scrutinise access seekers’ experiences in the wake of the divestment of tower infrastructure, and tower operators - in particular, vertically integrated tower operators - can expect ongoing close ACCC scrutiny of the terms of access offered to access seekers.
Further information on the consultation process will be placed on the ACCC website and communicated through the ACCC’s Communications Information Network and Regional Mobile Infrastructure Inquiries email communication lists. Stakeholders are encouraged to email the inquiry team at [email protected] to express an interest in contributing to the inquiry.
We’d love to talk to you about what the Consultation Paper could mean for your business – please get in touch.