Australia carrying out reforms to telecommunications carrier powers and immunities

The Australian Government is proceeding with reforms to telecommunications carrier powers and immunities, which are expected to lead to improved phone and internet services at affordable prices for consumers.

Powers and immunities regulations allow telcos to install and maintain network infrastructure, such as pillars and antennas, quickly and cost-effectively. These arrangements ensure telcos can upgrade mobile coverage and install fast broadband services without the delays imposed by protracted development approvals processes.

Carrier powers and immunities are designed to strike the right balance between the community’s need to access reliable, affordable telecommunications services, while ensuring that property owners, local governments and communities have a say in the deployment of telecommunications infrastructure that affects them.

The Government commenced consultation on 24 proposed reforms in June 2017. 81 non-confidential submissions were received from a range of stakeholders. After giving consideration to the views of property owners, councils and other parties, the Government has decided to proceed immediately with 10 reforms while conducting further consultation on 11 of the remaining proposals.

After considering this feedback, the Minister for Communications agreed to remake the Low Impact Facilities Determination and the Telecommunications Code of Practice. The remade instruments are now available on the Federal Register of Legislation and are referred to as the Telecommunications (Low-impact Facilities) Determination 2018 (LIFD) and the Telecommunications Code of Practice 2018 (Code)

The Amendments to the Telecommunications (Low-impact Facility) Determination are as below:

  1. Definition of co-located facilities: Clarifies that facilities are only ‘co-located facilities' if they are installed on/in a telecommunications facility or public utility structure (as opposed to on/in another type of building). A radiocommunications antenna installed on a tower or water tank would be a co-located facility if all the other requirements are met. However, an antenna being installed on the roof of a commercial building near a pre-existing radiocommunications antenna is not a co-located facility because it is not being installed in or on an original facility or public utility structure. As such it is not subject to the co-location rules in Part 7 of the Schedule of the LIFD
  2. Shrouds for radiocommunications facilities: Specifies that shrouds for radiocommunications facilities are ancillary facilities. Currently, a radio shroud is not clearly included in the LIFD as an ancillary facility. Under the LIFD, a facility is considered to be ancillary to a low-impact facility if it is necessary for the operation or proper functioning of the low-impact facility and is installed to ensure the protection or safety of the low-impact facility or persons or property close to the low-impact facility. As they seek to improve the visual amenity of a facility rather than ensure its safe or proper function, radio shrouds are not clearly covered by these provisions. This change would enable greater use of radio shrouds to screen mobile phone facilities.
  3. Omnidirectional antennas: Specifies omnidirectional radiocommunications antennas as low-impact facilities in residential and commercial areas, not just industrial and rural areas. This is intended to tenable greater use of slimline omnidirectional antennas, which are are thinner and considered to be less visually intrusive than panel or yagi antennas, which can already be used in such areas.
  4. Radiocommunications facilities: Replaces the technology-specific term ‘microcell' with general language to cover facilities with broader geographical coverage. This is intended to ensure all small radiocommunications facilities are covered by the LIFD, regardless of the size of their wireless coverage footprints. It would give carriers greater flexibility to improve mobile and wireless broadband coverage for customers using a wider variety of small radiocommunications facilities, without the need for state and territory planning approvals.
  5. Solar panel size: Increases the maximum size of solar panels in rural areas used to power telecommunications facilities from 7.5 to 12.5 square metres. Carriers use solar panels to power facilities in rural areas that do not have access to the power grid. They advise that 7.5 square metre solar panels do not generate sufficient energy to power some current generation radiocommunications facilities, and that 12.5 square metres is a more useful size. Requiring planning approvals for suitable panels that are up to 12.5 square metres delays service provision to customers.
  6. Open trench length: Increases the length of trench that can be open at any time for the installation of conduit or cable from 100 to 200 metres. Allowing 200 metres of trench to be open in residential areas would mean that carriers would be able to lay more conduit or cable each day, reducing the days they need to work in an area and reducing disruption to the community. It would also reduce carriers’ costs.
  7. Environmental legislation: Updates to reflect changes in environmental law

The Amendments to the Telecommunications Code of Practice are as below:

  1. Joint venture arrangements: Provides that in a joint venture arrangement where two carriers are installing or upgrading facilities, only the lead carrier's signature is required on relevant documentation, with an additional requirement to be included so that a notice includes the names and contact details of all carriers party to the joint venture
  2. Updates to references: Updates to out-of-date wording and references in the Code.

“Industry analysis has estimated that reforms to carrier powers and immunities will deliver economic and productivity benefits to consumers worth tens of millions of dollars per year, as well as providing regulatory cost savings for industry and consumers,” said Minister for Communications, Senator Mitch Fifield.

The Government will undertake further work this year with telcos and stakeholders to address feedback regarding existing processes for notifications and objections to works, dispute resolution arrangements, guidance for property owners on their rights and avenues for redress, and new arrangements for after an installation has been completed.

The Government is discussing further the other proposed amendments as well as other issues raised in the consultation process with stakeholders. A further update will be provided later this year.

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