Regional Australia won't get better mobile performance without data on capacity, study warns

© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP

Minimum regional mobile performance standards could be legislated if the government collected data about phone capacity, according to a new paper from RMIT University.

While the government conducts a review into regional telecommunications every three years, Professor Mark Gregory said achieving outcomes based only on anecdotal evidence can be difficult, particularly related to performance.

“If urban mobile telecommunications users were experiencing mobile telecommunications download speeds sub-10 Mbps for long periods of time, as it appears to be the case in regional, rural and remote areas … the problem would become a prime-time media topic,” Gregory wrote.

© Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP The Australian government conducts a review into regional telecommunications every three years, but achieving outcomes based only on anecdotal evidence can be difficult.

Gregory said “there is an identifiable lack of data related to regional mobile telecommunications” that is essential for government to formulate policy and regulations.

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Given consumers can complain to the telecommunications industry ombudsman about the performance of their mobile without an objective measure of what constitutes acceptable “performance”, it is challenging for the ombudsmen to act, he said.

“The only information available on the mobile network operator websites appears to exist in disclaimer form, as if to ensure that performance, whether poor, reasonable or good, is covered by a legal risk mitigation statement,” the paper said.

Gregory cited Telstra as the universal service obligation provider as an example of how connection speeds are advertised with a range that starts at 2 megabits (Mbps) per second irrespective of the mobile technology.

He said while the cost of mobile telecommunications is the same for regional, rural and remote areas as it is for urban areas, the access is not, according to a preliminary study carried out this year in South Australia, the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

“Across all regional areas studied, the average connection speeds were between 0-10 Mbps download and 0-2 Mbps upload,” Gregory said.

The preliminary study found connection speeds were only above 20 Mbps in Perth and Kalgoorlie, as well as most small cells near mining sites.

Gregory said this was most likely because cells had been installed at the request of mining companies, including a service-level agreement which includes a minimum performance specification.

That mining sites could achieve better performance due to agreed standards affirmed Gregory’s recommendation that the government should legislate minimum expectations for regional mobile telecommunications more broadly.

Teresa Corbin, the chief executive officer of the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) which includes the Regional, Rural and Remote Communications Coalition, said greater transparency was necessary.

“The information that is available to consumers is not adequate,” Corbin said.

She said the coverage maps which providers make available are often difficult for people to understand and don’t provide enough information on issues such as the capacity of the network, which will affect their use.

Gregory said mobile coverage “fundamentally affects quality of life” as well as the ability to conduct a business and national productivity.

Corbin said the need for access to mobile data to conduct basic services, including government services, is especially important.

She said there is even greater dependency on mobile networks now as people rely on it for accessing government and banking services, emergency messages during national disasters as well second-factor authentication for a range of services.

Luke Hartsuyker, the chair of the Regional Telecommunications Review, said “the committee is aware of the work of Professor Mark Gregory and is considering the topics raised in his article” as well as other issues raised including the resilience of telecommunications infrastructure in emergencies and service reliability as well as digital awareness and skills.

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