Australian incumbent Telstra will reportedly decommission more than 160 5G sites it was accused of registering only for the purpose of stifling rival Optus’ own 5G rollout.
It follows an investigation by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which was itself prompted by a complaint from Optus in March that Telstra was playing dirty.
It’s fair to say there is quite a lot of background to this one, but fortunately the ACCC laid it all out on its Website. The saga started in December 2021, when the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) held a 5G auction for 850-MHz and 900-MHz spectrum. A chunk of the latter band was held by Telstra, but remained largely unused – it hadn’t registered a new site since 2016. With Telstra’s licence due to expire in 2024, Optus saw an opportunity to add to its 5G capacity and successfully bid on the spectrum.
Following the auction, it emerged that the ACMA was open to applications for early access to the spectrum, which would have allowed Optus to put it to use in its network ahead of schedule. Once it became aware of this, Telstra is alleged to have registered 315 new sites in January in its largely-unused 900 MHz band – predominantly in major cities and inner regional areas – apparently knowing full well those sites would have to be decommissioned again in time to hand over the frequencies to Optus.
According to the ACCC, Telstra later deregistered 153 of those sites, and it has only used a limited number of the remaining 162.
In March, the Australian Financial Review (AFR) reported (paywall) on a letter it had seen from Optus to the ACCC in which the operator accused incumbent Telstra of hobbling its 5G rollout by abruptly making use of spectrum it was due to hand back in two years.
“Telstra’s conduct represents a serious breach… and should be dealt with in a timely manner to prevent further and ongoing harm to competition in mobile markets,” the letter said.
On Wednesday, Telstra agreed to a court-enforceable undertaking to deregister the outstanding 162 cell sites.
“We were concerned that Telstra’s registration of 315 radiocommunications sites in the 900 MHz spectrum band had the substantial purpose or likely effect of lessening competition by Optus, as Telstra knew of the importance of this spectrum band to Optus’ 5G rollout plan,” said ACCC commissioner Liza Carver, in a statement.
“Telstra’s undertaking will ensure Optus is not hindered from expanding its 5G rollout, giving more Australians access to a choice of 5G services in regional and metropolitan Australia,” she continued. “This is critical as 5G network coverage becomes an increasingly important factor in consumer choice in mobile phones and mobile plans.”
The word cynical doesn’t quite do justice to Telstra’s antics here, and the incumbent should count itself lucky to have seemingly escaped a more serious consequence. It would be interesting to know who cooked up such a brazenly anti-competitive plan – and whether this individual or group still have jobs – but it’s highly unlikely such details will ever come to light.