In recent communications with two esteemed colleagues, there has been a discussion on the potential for community-owned mobile networks to bridge the connectivity gap in remote areas, particularly in Australia. The central theme of these conversations revolves around the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of establishing such networks and the legal and licensing challenges that currently hinder their development.
Affordable Connectivity for Remote Regions
There is an urgent need for reliable broadband coverage in remote regions of Australia. The discussion highlighted the potential for Starlink, with its 5,000 satellites, to provide consumer-grade broadband internet virtually anywhere. It was proposed that the cost of small mobile base stations with modern technology should be within reach for local councils and communities, enabling them to create their own transmission sites using Starlink as the backhaul link to the internet. This approach, if realised, could significantly reduce the exorbitant costs associated with traditional mobile towers, making 5G networks more accessible to remote areas.
Where is the funding coming from?
A key obstacle to a viable solution where government is involved in funding regional and remote connectivity is opex funding. To date, no government will commit to ongoing opex funding — in fact, not even to short-term opex, as they don’t as a rule have program budgets that extend beyond a couple of years. If government commits to opex for a couple of years with no commitment from someone else to pick up the bill after that, then these programs will fail, wasting the entire investment. With fixed wireless internet solutions that States and Federal Government fund there is a contractual obligation that ranges from 3 years to 7 years to commit to operating the network by the carrier. They must then absorb the risk of driving revenue into the project to make it financially viable. With LTE/5G community networks this would be easier to administer because of the option for prepaid services that anyone can buy at any time without having to commit to plans, customer premise equipment like roof dishes or other costs. Which makes these solutions a good option for governments to fund. Unfortunately, due primarily to spectrum licensing issues and the cost of network interconnect (connecting to other carriers) we see very few of these LTE/5G networks proposed in our grant schemes, which limits the number of locations where these grants can help solve digital connectivity issues.
The Role of Pricing and Quotas
It was also suggested that local mobile networks could compete with Starlink by offering competitive pricing and data quotas. Customers would opt for the most cost-effective option, potentially boosting the adoption of locally owned and operated mobile networks. Additionally, the decreasing cost of solar PV and battery storage makes powering these small base stations more feasible, even in areas with erratic weather patterns.
Legal and Licensing Hurdles
However, it’s clear that technical challenges are not the primary obstacles to community-owned mobile networks. The discussion also underscores that licensing and legal barriers represent the most significant roadblocks. Spectrum licensing, sub-licensing from major carriers, interconnect and equitable roaming agreements with established telecom giants like Optus and Telstra are all complex issues that hinder the progress of local networks.
Satellite Backhaul Capacity
As satellite backhaul capacity via Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites will become increasingly available and affordable, further mitigating capacity constraints in low-density population areas. With the introduction of Gen-2.0 Starlink satellites, capacity is expected to increase significantly. Other satellite networks like OneWeb and Kuiper are also entering the scene, promising to alleviate capacity concerns.
Spectrum Licensing Reform
My colleagues passionately argued for reform in spectrum licensing, advocating for a “use it or lose it” clause that would force carriers to make unused spectrum available for sub-licensing at reasonable fees if they haven’t used it after a set period of time. The current practice of hoarding spectrum, often with no intent to use it, is seen as a significant obstacle to progress. Telstra’s actions in this regard, particularly their strategy of maintaining control over spectrum even in areas with no service for hundreds of kilometres, are called into question.
The Role of Special Interests and Politics
In conclusion, both colleagues emphasise that the primary barriers to community-owned mobile networks are political and driven by special interests rather than technological or financial constraints. While the cost-effectiveness of deploying such networks is evident, navigating the complex web of licensing and regulatory challenges remains the greatest challenge.
This discussion underscores the need for regulatory bodies like ACMA and the ACCC to take proactive measures to promote fair competition and access to spectrum resources. By doing so, they can help facilitate the development of affordable and reliable mobile networks in remote regions, ultimately bridging the digital divide and ensuring that even the most remote communities have access to the benefits of modern connectivity.