Friday, March 22, 2024

What exactly is a mobile "blackspot"

The MP for Flynn, Colin Boyce, has launched a petition calling for a Senate inquiry into "big telcos", calling on telcos to "put people before profits". Radio news coverage said the following with the highlighted comment by the MP:

A petition has been launched in a bid to improve regional telecommunications Flynn MP Colin Boyce, whose electorate stretches to Moore Park, is calling for a Senate inquiry into the issue and why big telco companies aren't meeting their obligations. He says these black spots are even making it hard for people to call emergency services between Mount Perry and Eidsvold. 

A resident came across an accident they found a couple on the side of the road. A man was bleeding profusely. The lady could not get through to emergency services due to this black spot, and it took over an hour to get a communication connection to get the ambulance out there to assist these people. 

This is an area on the Western side of the Great Dividing Range inland from Bundaberg. It is mostly National Park and State Forest. We aren't given enough detail to pinpoint the accident location exactly.

It is hard to get a good image from Telstra's coverage map, but the image below is from their 4G coverage and the green blob in the middle is Mount Perry (you can see the road that comes in from the North and then the road out to the West. 

That great expanse of grey isn't a black spot, it is a chasm! Note also the patchy nature of coverage around Mount Perry - these infill spaces could be called black spots, but they would take a lot more infrastructure to fill than some of the expanses, though each new coverage addition would have its own patchy coverage at its edge. 

Here is what Telstra's website says about its coverage:

Putting the first figure into perspective, the only time the telcos had a coverage "obligation" (to use Boyce's word) was when the licences to operate the GSM (2G) networks were issued. They were required to cover 80% of the population. To put the second figure into perspective, that is just 35% of the total land area. 

Geosciences Australia estimates the area of desert in Australia as 1.37 million kilometres. Therefore Telstra's coverage is still only 43% of the non-desert land area. 

Referring to areas without coverage as "blackspots" is misleading. They are often large areas - larger than the footprint of just one base station. It is wilfully inaccurate to call this failure to meet obligations. The only obligation telcos have with mobiles is to pay to buy spectrum. It is also wrong to suggest that the large increase in coverage that would be required to, say, ensure no one was more than five minutes drive away from coverage, would be putting people before profits. That massive capital expenditure would still be paid for by consumers all across Australia requiring higher fees for everybody.

Apart from wanting a Senate inquiry, Boyce has acknowledged there is yet another Regional Telecommunications Independent Review underway. He probably doesn't realise that these reviews were included in the legislation by the Howard Government (Helen Coonan as Minister) to secure the Nationals support for the third stage of Telstra privatisation. Having seen the millions of dollars commited after the Besley and Estens inquiries the Nationals thought these regular reviews would unleash similar funding rounds. But without any sale proceeds, there is no cash to splash. (All the previous inquiry reports can be found here).

Of course, one way to increase coverage would be to stop having inefficient duplication of mobile networks in the thinly populated areas. The easiest way to do that is to create a mobile carrier that has a monopoly on regional areas and is owned by Government (so Government determines coverage) onto which all three of the mobile networks customers roam. (I made this suggestion in my own submission to the last RTIRC).

However, no matter what strategy is employed, there will still be large parts of Australia without mobile coverage. Calling them blackspots or claiming that telcos are uncaring is just misleading. For people planning visits to these areas or living in these areas satellite based alternatives are available. 

Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans JWL

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