An inquiry is being launched today by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission into whether or not to declare a wholesale domestic mobile roaming service, which would enable mobile service providers to provide coverage in areas where they don't have their own network.
An increasing reliance on mobile services and the issue of coverage and a lack of choice in some regional areas is a particular issue that has been raised by a number of groups, the ACCC says. There has been significant interest in the questions around access to mobile networks and mobile roaming, including from representatives from regional Australia, the Regional Telecommunications Review Committee, Infrastructure Australia and the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee.
The ACCC says a declaration inquiry would focus on a number of key issues, including how consumer demands for mobile services are evolving, and whether there are differences in regional areas to urban areas. The likely investment plans of each of the mobile network operators to extend coverage and upgrade technology are also a focus, as is whether there are any significant barriers to expanding the reach of mobile networks.
Lessons from similar experience with domestic mobile roaming in other countries will also be taken on board.
The ACCC has previously considered mobile roaming in regional areas in inquiries held in 1998 and 2005 respectively. On both occasions it decided not to regulate an access service as it was satisfied roaming agreements were being commercially negotiated.
"Network coverage is clearly a key feature of a mobile service, and each of the mobile network operators has extended its networks since we last looked at this issue in detail," ACCC Chairman Rod Sims said. "A lot has changed since 2005. We do think it's time we look at the issue again in detail, and examine some of these key matters, including consumer demand, network investment, and barriers to competition. We consider the most efficient way to do that is to consider all of the issues carefully through a declaration inquiry."
Mr Sims stressed that, at this stage, the ACCC had not formed any views on whether declaration of a mobile roaming service would deliver benefits for consumers.
"A particular area of concern for us is whether consumers would, in fact, be disadvantaged if the incentives to invest in expanding the reach of mobile networks were reduced," Mr Sims said.
The ACCC has also released an issues paper today for a separate but parallel market study into the communications market as a whole.
"We considered whether we should examine mobile roaming issues as part of the market study. However, we decided that a more focused inquiry to deal with the issue more quickly will provide the market with greater certainty, sooner," said Mr Sims.