09 April 2024

Insight from: Robbie Sefton

The quality and geographical spread of our telecommunications networks has been the focus of debate, inquiries, complaints and blame-shifting for longer than I care to remember and now the issue is back in the news as Australia's mobile network operators start shutting down the 3G network.

Many of us in the bush need reliable coverage to run our businesses effectively and efficiently.

Extensive travel is also a big part of my personal and professional life, so I rely on having access to mobile networks to assist with my business, plus in the event of a breakdown or other incident on the road.

I also had the honour of serving on the federal government's Regional Telecommunications Independent Review Committee in 2018 to assess the adequacy of telecommunications services in regional, rural, and remote parts of Australia. These take place every three years, with one underway now.

What my committee heard was residents in many parts of rural and remote Australia were not being adequately served by their telecommunication networks, with government funding being a key issue.

Recommendations were made and it was hoped the situation would improve but in the years since, I'm not confident that a lot of progress has been made.

Now, we're facing the switch-off of the 3G network to be completed by September 1, 2024, when Optus completes its shutdown. Telstra has a deadline of June 30 and Vodaphone completed the process in January.

Understandably, there's a lot of consternation about the shutdown, with the most concern coming from rural and remote communities. Unfortunately, this comes as no surprise. Many of the issues we highlighted in 2018 are still problems today.

The 3G switch-off is aimed at freeing up radio frequency spectrum for providers to expand 4G and 5G services. That's good news if you live in an area where you have access to 4G and 5G and don't travel out of city or large regional centres too often. If not, then you'll be finding the shutdown deadlines a little harder to swallow.

Yes, telcos have been telling us this 3G phase-out was coming, but they also said this was in conjunction with the upgrading and expansion of 4G and 5G services. In my experience - and that of many people I talk to in the bush - this hasn't occurred.

We're being told 3G networks are being "repurposed" to increase the reach and capacity of the other networks, but "this will take time". In my travels, there are still numerous areas where 3G is the only network I can access, or there is no mobile coverage.

And, like so many others, I think coverage in some areas has actually deteriorated.

For numerous communities across the country, 3G is the only game in town when it comes to communications.

Unfortunately, telco customers have little to no recourse when it comes to losing service - or even having it in the first place - and there have long been calls for greater regulation of the industry. I wonder where the effective government policy is for this.

With the calls from rural and regional communities on coverage quality and reliability seemingly as loud as they have ever been, maybe it's time to give meaningful consideration to making our government policy makers and telco providers more accountable for the decisions and services they provide to constituents and consumers - not just those in metropolitan areas.

To read this article in The Land newspaper, visit Time for greater scrutiny of telco providers as 3G network shutdown exposes ongoing community divide | The Land | NSW

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