Not all parts of the state are cost effective to run big communications infrastructure. The headaches in rolling out the National Broadband Network (NBN), satellites, and even the cost of maintaining the old copper network are examples.
This is why smaller operators, with nimble, smaller-scale technology, which can be tweaked to fit niche circumstances, have a significant role in connecting the bush.
Such providers have relied on access to the 3.6 gigahertz spectrum, which for the past decade was not much more than a junk frequency – that is until it was declared the global band for 5G.
5G promises quicker connection speeds than 4G, but also needs more antennas per square kilometre. This makes it less attractive from a return on investment perspective in sparser populated areas.
Right now, federal Communications Minister Mitch Fifield is deciding whether or not to accept a recommendation by the telecommunications regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, to sell the 3.6gH spectrum to the highest bidder.
If he gives this the tick, regional Australia will have its access to communications dictated by whoever has the deepest pockets. That means major telcos, who to date have not established effective mobile networks outside major towns, could control a spectrum monopoly and lock out popular wireless providers.
This would also mean a loss of competition and flexibility of services and the skilled technicians the smaller operators employ. These smaller providers also offer the ability to scale up and down their connection speeds in response to demand, like using electricity in off-peak times to reduce cost.
This tailored service option can help regional business competitiveness. Even Australian Competition and Consumer chairman, Rod Sims, is calling out a potential market failure for rural customers if the highest bidder option is adopted.
As more services are provided online, including training, health and education, as well as technical support for farms and other businesses, limiting access to a spectrum is counter productive.
These small, flexible providers are the alternative to NBN in the bush. Government needs to either provide an alternative, effective spectrum on which these smaller services can operate, or keep the access open by not taking the highest-bid option.