AUSTRALIANS in regional areas would continue to be “held hostage” over mobile phone plans, and could be denied choice, cheaper prices, and greater coverage under a new decision from the competition watchdog, Vodafone has warned.
The allegations followed the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s draft report into mobile roaming, which denied competitors access to Telstra and Optus’ regional mobile phone networks.
While Telstra welcomed the decision, telecommunications providers including Vodafone and Pivotel said it would not help expand mobile coverage in rural and regional Australia or provide better choice for consumers.
The ACCC’s draft report, issued eight months after the inquiry into mobile roaming began, found there was “insufficient evidence” that opening existing networks to other providers would deliver better coverage outside Australia’s cities.
ACCC chairman Rod Sims said the move would have delivered greater competition in regional and rural Australia, but may also have raised the price of using a mobile phone.
“In rural Australia, consumers would get more choice — there’s absolutely no doubt about that,” he said.
“We weren’t as convinced as others that Telstra’s prices would come down as much as people were expecting. More importantly, the non-Telstra providers would have to pay for access and that could have the effect that some prices would rise.”
Mr Sims said opening up their networks could also mean Telstra and Optus were be less likely to compete over “strategic investments,” and despite a “scare campaign” from Telstra, the ACCC was confident the company would continue to expand its regional network coverage.
But Vodafone chief strategy officer Dan Lloyd branded the draft decision a “missed opportunity” that would see many Australians “held hostage to Telstra”.
“This could have given every regional Australian a choice of provider so there’s competition in price and there’s innovation in services, but they’re missing out on the opportunities for extended coverage,” he said.
“You go out to the outskirts of Goulburn, Dubbo, and Yass and ask people ‘are you satisfied?’ and you won’t find anyone who says anything other than they’re deeply frustrated and they’re essentially captive. If roaming is not the solution, what is the solution?”
Mr Lloyd said other countries including New Zealand had successfully opened their networks to competitors, allowing them to pay to access more customers, and he hoped the ACCC would reverse its decision before releasing its final report midyear.
But Telstra chief executive officer Andy Penn said the ACCC’s draft decision was correct, and would give the firm incentive to invest in regional Australia.
“If this decision is confirmed, we will immediately move to expand our 4G coverage to reach 99 per cent of the population by later this year,” he said.
“If this decision is confirmed, I look forward to Telstra getting on with the job of supporting regional Australia and even more investment.”