Vocus is backing low earth orbit (LEO) satellites to solve the “tangle” of telecoms policies, subsidies and networks presently used to serve internet users in regional and remote Australia.
Speaking at the CommsDay Summit, Vocus general manager of government and strategic projects Michael Ackland warned that Australia’s telecommunications policies had created “winners and losers” when it comes to broadband access.
He warned that the “divide” between metropolitan and regional parts of the country is growing, arguing that only a “technological breakthrough” would change the game for regional users.
“Over the next three years we’re likely to see the majority of metro and suburban areas have access to gigabit NBN speeds as well as two or even three competitive 5G networks offering speeds in the hundreds of megabits per second,” Ackland said.
“People living in regional Australia will continue to have access to NBN fixed wireless and satellite, as they do today.
“If they’re lucky, they might also have access to 4G mobile broadband, and in some fortunate cases they may even have access to 5G if the rollouts have progressed beyond lucrative metro markets.
“But the digital divide will be wider than ever, and unless there’s a change in direction, regional areas will continue to be served by a piecemeal approach, which has created a tangle of telecoms policies – all broadly trying to solve the same problem.”
Ackland pointed the universal services obligation (USO), which keeps the regional copper network alive; the regional broadband scheme (RBS) levy, which is meant to fund future NBN wireless and satellite upgrades; the mobile blackspot program, which has brought better cellular services into the regions; the regional connectivity program; and various state-based programs promoting potential NBN overbuild.
He was not critical the programs existed – “people living and working in regional Australia deserve all this and more” – but instead argued about the inefficiency of the approach.
“These various subsidy programs have created a telecoms tangle in regional areas, and in many cases, they overlap and overbuild one another,” Ackland said.
“So we have a situation where metropolitan residents already have access to superior broadband technologies enjoying multi-billion dollar upgrades, versus regional residents who have access to fixed wireless, satellite and mobile networks, which will forever be dependent on government subsidy programs.”
Ackland believed the arrival of LEO satellite-powered broadband would bring about a step change for regional Australia.
“If LEO satellites deliver on their promise, this could solve the regional telecommunications tangle in the next few years,” he said.
“The USO, RBS, mobile blackspots program, and various state-based funding programs are likely to become redundant”.
Vocus said it was backing LEOs in part because it believed it could offer high-capacity ground infrastructure needed for ground station connectivity.
“With our extensive fibre network, particularly in regional areas, we are able to facilitate the entry of this technology into Australia, and we intend to sell it,” Ackland said.
“Vocus is ideally placed to play in this space”.
Ackland said that the future of any broadband service in regional Australia depended on backhaul.
He said that backhaul – particularly that funded or part-funded under government subsidy programs – should be open access with equivalence obligations by default, instead of continuing to be duplicated by any party also wishing to service regional users.