Access to telecommunications infrastructure, particularly affordable broadband services, remains a problem for some Western Australian businesses. WA Business News brought together some of the State’s key players to discuss the issue. Alison Birrane repor
WESTERN Australians are proud of their State’s pristine environment and wide open spaces. Much of how we view ourselves is derived from our physical environment.
In fact Perth’s remoteness and unofficial status as the world’s ‘most isolated capital city’ is considered a badge of honour by some.
But in this age of technology-driven business practice, Western Australia’s remoteness is posing problems for businesses located on the fringes of the telecommunications network.
Some in the industry argue that the current telecommunications infrastructure is not yet world class and is hindering WA’s economic progress.
Others say we are on track and that elements of our network provide examples of best practice – particularly given the parameters in which we operate.
Further, with a recent drop in the cost of technology and increasing community and business expectations, the enabling technology is now cheaper, and therefore commercially viable, than ever before.
A report released by the Technology and Industry Advisory Council (TIAC) in September 2003 said that WA does not yet have a world-class broadband infra-structure.
Getting past this point means tackling issues including cost and competition in the marketplace.
So the question to be posed is: who should be responsible for telecommunications infrastructure?
Is it a government responsibility in the same way transport infrastructure is, or should it be commercially driven by service providers?
TIAC spokesman Rob Meecham said roll out of top quality broadband infrastructure should remain a top priority in the State.
“TIAC is a body that has just produced a report on broadband access within the metro area, and certainly the view in our organisation for the future of the State of WA … we have to make higher speed broadband access available to business and the community at a faster rate than is already available,” he said.
“Western Australia’s economic position is being jeopardised because we haven’t solved the issue of the availability of high-speed telecommunications services.
“I think we are all aware that the hardware is in the ground. It becomes an issue of cost and who pays, and that is where I think the question currently lies.”
A case in point is the ongoing battle, as reported by WA Business News in recent months, between Telstra and businesses in Belmont and Malaga over the availability of Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL).
While Telstra has made moves to rectify the situation, the telco giant also says that broadband is widely available and if ADSL cannot be accessed then other types of broadband can.
However, businesses in these areas, many of them small operations, say the cost of the alternatives put it out of their reach.
Some have argued that community and business expectation were exceeding the technology, that broadband was both time consuming and expensive to roll out and was subject to commercial viability.
Telstra spokesman Peter Fairclough said investment decisions of Telstra were based on commercial parameters.
“An organisation like Telstra gets lobbied by a lot of people,” he said.
“They expect commercial organisations like us to make investment decisions that they themselves wouldn’t make, because they are fundamentally commercially flawed.
“Telecommunications is in a significantly different place to where it was 10 years ago.
“You have 80 or 90 licensed co-players in this country at the moment … if you have a particular need at this point in time you could probably buy a solution to fit your particular need, particularly within the large metro area and the larger regional centres.
“So I think in that sense the market is working exceptionally well.
“The critical issue is how do you deliver services, with those comparable services, to those areas where there is not a successful economic model.
“There are areas in the metro area that want DSL, there are processes in place where you can demonstrate the commercial parameters and have it delivered,” Mr Fairclough said.
However, commercial viability and the issue of competition remain a prickly issue for the alternate telecommunications service providers operating in the shadow of the incumbent.
Amcom chief operating officer Clive Stein said alternative service providers were forced to either build their own infrastructure or to use Telstra’s network.
“If we take Malaga, there was a definite need for broadband access in that area,” he said.
“We wanted to satisfy that need, but at this point in time we have been unsuccessful in engaging Telstra to provide us with access to the rim.”
Mr Stein said the situation was the same for alternative providers wanting to provide services to regional communities.
“I think the challenge with regional centres, for others to come and serve those markets, is that there is one highway down there typically and Telstra owns the highway, and for any other providers to come and serve those local communities means either another investment to build another freeway out there, or to pay the toll to get there,” he said.
WestNet managing director Peter Brown agreed.
“To me that is where the core of the problem is,” Mr Brown said.
“You can’t have a private company in Australia, rolling out infrastructure. It really needs to have the government backing for it to work. I don’t think it will ever change while Telstra is in the position that it is.”