Australia’s 5G rollout: concern over ‘large disparity’ between cities and regions

ACCC report shows priority of 5G mobile infrastructure is cities, while focus in regions remains updating from 3G to 4G

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Australia’s three mobile network operators have made “significant investments” in infrastructure but the 5G rollout is focused on cities rather than regions, a new report has found.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has for the first time released a Mobile Infrastructure Report, which provides analysis on the change in Telstra, Singtel Optus and TPG Telecom coverage from 2018 to 2021.

Anna Brakey, a commissioner at the ACCC, said one of the report’s main findings was that the rollout of 5G networks was occurring in cities first, while the focus in regional Australia remains updating 3G to 4G.

Andrew Williams, the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network’s acting chief executive, said: “While we understand that there are financial reasons for their focus on the cities, it is still concerning to see the large disparity between new sites rolled out into major cities and those being built in regional and remote Australia.

“We know there are still many communities in regional, rural and remote Australia who don’t have access to reliable mobile phone coverage.”

Assoc Prof Mark Gregory of RMIT said the report itself was “positive” for regional communities because it is the first time such data has been available.

“The data will support informed government policy and regulations,” he said.

Gregory published a study this year that found that concrete data, rather than anecdotal evidence, was needed for regional Australia to get better mobile performance.

The impetus behind releasing the data was to provide more transparency and accountability over operators’ investment in infrastructure, “particularly in regional Australia”, the ACCC report said.

Brakey said: “We know many consumers in regional areas find it difficult to check what coverage is available in their area. Our own analysis shows that assessing geographic coverage with the network operators’ maps is difficult.”

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The ACCC’s commitment comes after Julian Leeser this year introduced a private member’s bill calling for greater accountability among telcos.

The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network has also called for telecommunications to be recognised as an essential service. Both Leeser and Accan have underlined that regional communities are the worst affected.

Brakey said the report meant consumers could see where networks have mobile infrastructure in place, which could translate into coverage maps.

The report predicted the data could have implications for “specific geographic areas”, providing more transparency on how operators’ mobile infrastructure and coverage have changed over time, and more accountability over investment claims by operators in different locations.

“It is really important that the ACCC has this additional information so that consumers can easily compare providers and the coverage experience they can expect,” Williams said.

“Coverage maps from mobile providers can be difficult for people to understand as they focus on ‘predicted coverage’. Because different telcos use different assumptions when predicting whether you’ll have mobile coverage in your area, this has made it really hard to compare providers’ coverage claims.”

Williams said the ACCC’s continued reporting on this data would help ensure consistency in the standard of coverage maps that the telcos provide in the future.

Gregory believes of greatest relevance for regional and remote Australia is that the report provides the locations of the mobile infrastructure which will help with identifying black spots.

“Third parties will be able to build a better understanding of what’s out there, and possibly they might even be able to use different predictive modelling to get a better understanding of where the coverage really is. It’s a great start.”

Brakey said the ACCC expected the data would improve over time to become more consistent.

Williams said: “Future versions of the report will play an important role in helping to track particular data about mobile networks, such as the future shutdown of the 3G network. This is of particular interest to people in regional areas.”

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