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Speech by Nerida O’Loughlin, ACMA Chair, CommsDay Summit 2021


Good morning everyone. Thank you Grahame for your introduction and thank you to CommsDay for once again providing this important forum for discussion on key industry matters.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet today – the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging, and to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples attending this summit.

When I last spoke at this forum just over a year ago, uncertainty here in Australia and across the globe was palpable. While we continue to live with uncertainty, there are things of which we can be certain – things that make an effective and functioning society – and their importance has only been magnified over the last year. These are: the ability to make social connections, to have a safe place to work, to have access to accurate information, to provide a good education for our children, to stay healthy and to be able to take time away for recreation.

Fundamentally, the way we do these things has been evolving for decades, irrevocably changed by digital technology and dramatically accelerated by a pandemic.

The pace of change in consumer behaviour has also rapidly increased – from e-commerce to telehealth, people have adapted to new ways to make their commercial and personal transactions. Just looking at telehealth, which for a country the size of Australia is a boon, the ABC reports more than 54 million telehealth services have been completed in the 12 months to March this year.

Whether it is people working from home, having a GP visit them via mobile or keeping in touch online with family and friends in lockdown, the telco sector has played a critical role in enabling Australians to get on with their lives over the last year.

And just as critically, the services and infrastructure you deliver are part of the foundation that will secure Australia’s economic recovery from COVID-19.

Key themes

For the ACMA’s part, we have an integral role in supporting and assisting industry, government and the public in this dynamic environment through 3 key priorities:

  • Firstly, to ensure we have a regulatory framework that anticipates change in communications and media markets. Fundamental to this is the research we undertake on consumer behaviour, which informs both government policy and industry decision-making. Today I will refer to some of the statistics borne out from our recent research.
  • Secondly, to build public confidence in communications and media services. This relies on having an effective complaints and compliance framework in place and also calling out industry as we see it when you are performing well or when you are not meeting your obligations to customers. Today I will touch on the outcome of our compliance priorities for the last year as well as announce our new compliance priorities for 2021–22.
  • And our other key priority continues to be the management of the finite resource that is spectrum so that it benefits all Australians. So lastly I will talk through our upcoming spectrum management agenda.  

The pace of change

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone here that Australians’ appetite for and reliance on communications services and online engagement continues to grow.

The ACMA’s recently released research on how we communicate and the supply and use of communications services shows that Australians continue to move online at an astonishing rate:

  • the number of Australian adults with a smart phone grew from 81% in 2017 to 93% in 2020
  • nearly all (99%) of Australian adults accessed the internet in 2020, up from 90% in 2019
  • the reliance on mobile device voice services continues to grow, with the volume of voice calls seven times greater on mobiles than fixed-line phones
  • at 30 June 2020, there were around 32.2 million prepaid, postpaid and mobile broadband services in operation; and
  • an increasing use of the internet saw NBN monthly average data consumption per end user increase 15% from June 2019 to 297GB in June 2020 (and it was even higher in April 2020 at 330GB).

That last figure in particular is indicative of the significant increase in online activity driven by COVID-19 as Australians have had to live more of their lives in a digital environment when they haven’t been able to go out into the physical environment.

Research has found that in the 6 months to June 2020, 42% of Australian internet users worked from home. More than half (55%) of these people reported starting or increasing working from home arrangements because of COVID-19 restrictions.

As I previously mentioned, the use of telehealth has also become more prevalent, with 36% of Australians engaged in online consultations – which would be unheard of only a few years ago.

Whether this type of activity and the public’s broader reliance on digital communications and online platforms become the ‘new norm’ as we move to a post-COVID world is something I’m sure all of us will be keeping a close eye on.

Sector performance

Over the last 12 months resilience has become something of a watchword, both for individuals and businesses. The ability for Australians to make a smooth and increasing transition to an online world has been underpinned by the capacity of our broadband infrastructure, especially the NBN, and complemented by robust mobile networks.

Your services were vital in supporting how we worked, stayed connected, entertained ourselves and stayed healthy through a very tough year for so many Australians.

The ability to provide that capacity as well as continuity and quality of service will be crucial as we move towards a post-COVID world.

As I said earlier, the ACMA will continue to call out both good and poor service from the sector. One of the areas of increasing interest for the ACMA is the service you provide to small businesses.

This is both because small business comprises a significant proportion of your customer base, but also because of their key contribution to the economy.

The Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman reported in December 2020 that small business employed over 4.7 million people and 41% of the business workforce in 2018-19, contributing almost $418 billion of value, or over 32% of Australia’s total GDP.

When we look at small business interactions with their telecommunications providers, the ACMA considers efficient and effective handling of complaints can be an important indicator of how well the telco sector is working for business. Based on research from both the TIO and the ACMA, our view is that Australian businesses could be better served.

In June 2020, the TIO published a systemic investigation report which observed that complaints from small businesses had been increasing as a proportion of all complaints over the previous 3 years. Comparing data:

  • in 2014–15, complaints received by the TIO from small businesses represented 11.6% of all complaints
  • but in the December 2020 quarter, this proportion had reached 17%.

The ACMA’s October 2020 report on Australian business telco consumer experience is also telling. It found that in the previous 6 months, 40% of businesses had made a complaint to their telco, that 21% of business complaints had taken over 3 weeks to resolve and that 46% of all surveyed businesses were dissatisfied with how their complaint was resolved.

So, these findings are concerning on a number of fronts as:

  • the proportion of complaints to telcos is growing
  • resolution of these complaints is taking too long
  • nearly half of business customers are dissatisfied with the outcome.

Just as alarming, the ACMA’s research revealed that 42% of small and medium-sized businesses that had experienced a loss of phone or internet service considered the impact to be ‘major’.

As the TIO observed:

'Many small businesses rely heavily on phone and internet services for the day-to-day operation of their business. Problems with these essential services can have serious consequences.'

In the broader context, inadequate service delivery and ineffective complaint handling by telcos of their small business customers could have the potential to put a brake on Australia’s economic recovery at a crucial time. This is why it is a key area of focus for the ACMA.

Compliance priorities

Consumer complaint handling is of course a major component of the broader compliance framework.

In recent years the ACMA has set out annual target areas for improved industry compliance where we believe the greatest attention is needed to address non-compliance and to support consumer confidence. In 2020–21 these included:

  • protecting telco customers, in particular disadvantaged or vulnerable consumers
  • helping customers to move their services onto the NBN
  • addressing phone scams

One of the outcomes of this prioritisation was the publication of our 'state of play' report on financial hardship for both residential and small business customers.

We will also publish a report later this month looking at telco compliance dealing with disadvantaged and vulnerable consumers.

We have conducted an audit of compliance with the NBN Consumer Information Standard, which addresses whether consumers have adequate information to choose a service that suits their needs. We conducted a similar audit in 2018, which resulted in 7 telcos – including several mid-tier telcos – being issued infringement notices. It is good to see that the latest audit revealed a reduction in the scale of these problems and that were mostly confined to smaller telcos.

Our activities on phone scams have including registering the Reducing Scam Calls Code, which has remarkably seen over 55 million scam calls blocked across the industry in the first 3 months of the code’s operation.

Following the success of these initiatives, I am announcing today our compliance priorities for 2021–22.

Our priorities have consistently included a focus on areas with the potential for consumer harm. In the coming year we will prioritise significant small business concerns about telcos being uncontactable and delays in the handling of small business complaints. As mentioned earlier, this work acknowledges that small business will be a critical part of Australia’s economic recovery over the coming years.

We will also continue to focus on selling practices to vulnerable consumers as we seek compliance with important telco consumer safeguards.

Building on recent substantial efforts to combat scams we will continue to address the harm from telephone scams as we focus on new rules to identify, trace and block scam calls.  

In unsolicited communications, financial services marketing will continue to be a compliance priority as we address the risks in this sector.

We will also continue the current focus on 5G EME compliance as an area of ongoing community interest, with priorities on compliance with licence conditions and deployment code consultation and transparency rules.

Finally, our important work addressing illegal online gambling will specifically focus on websites that promote online gambling services as part of affiliate programs.

You can read more on our website about our compliance priorities and the activities we intend to undertake.

But I will emphasise that in identifying specific compliance priorities, the ACMA has no intention of taking our eye off the ball on other matters. Yesterday, we announced our recent enforcement action against Telstra in relation to its suspension in 2020 of local number porting obligations. And a number of other compliance and enforcement outcomes will be announced in coming weeks.

Alongside our own compliance priorities, we will also continue discussing with the government our views on the current regulatory framework and where we think it may need improvement.

As we have argued previously, telco networks and services are now essential to our economic and social lives. Making sure the regulation of those services delivers for consumers while minimising costs for industry should be an ongoing objective for us all. And we look forward to continuing that discussion with industry, consumer advocates and the government.

In the meantime, we at the ACMA will use all the powers we currently have to pursue issues which we know impact consumers, particularly small business, and diminishes their ability to participate fully in the economic and social life of this country.

And we will continue to use our regulatory discretion, remove or adapt regulation and streamline our processes to minimise the costs to industry to support its growth and success.

This will include a major redesign of our spectrum licence management process and investment in a new digital auction system.

With the assistance of $7.1 million in funding through the government’s Jobmaker Digital Business Plan, these initiatives will enable the ACMA to deliver a more efficient service to business, including licensees.

Spectrum management

I can also assure you that the ACMA’s vision is set as much to the future as well as the here and now in our spectrum management role.

Our spectrum planning agenda is framed through the prism of addressing the growing commercial and consumer demand for data capacity as well as delivering benefits more broadly for Australia’s digital transformation.

The quest for increasing data capacity, increased speed and reduced latency are all driving demand for new spectrum, or for changes to existing spectrum management arrangements to support wireless and satellite communications. 

Our five-year spectrum outlook outlines the work that the ACMA is doing to make spectrum available to meet Australia’s need for increased data capacity and speed.

Today I will highlight a few elements from our spectrum work program.

5G spectrum allocations a key initiative

The Australian Government has called 2021 the ‘Year of 5G’.

For its part, the ACMA has been progressing an extensive program of planning and allocations looking at high, mid and low band spectrum suitable for 5G.

As you would be aware, the ACMA has recently announced the outcome of the auction of 26 GHz band spectrum we conducted in April, which allocated these spectrum licences to five bidders for use across capital cities as well as a number of major regional centres at a cost of $647 million.

Registered applicants were able to bid for up to 1000 MHz of 26 GHz band spectrum in the auction, meaning they were able to acquire larger amounts of contiguous bandwidth than has previously been possible.

The 26 GHz band is the first millimetre wave band to be released in Australia for 5G technology. With the millimetre wave having the ability to support large amounts of data with minimal delay, the availability of this spectrum will allow faster digital communications and new opportunities for connectivity and innovative uses supporting Australia’s digital transformation.

With the completion of this auction, we will hold a second round of applications for apparatus licensing in the 26 GHz band for all the remaining areas outside of spectrum licensing. Again, this will use the very flexible area wide licence type introduced by the ACMA last year.

Our work is also focused on low band spectrum. Later this year the ACMA will be allocating low-band spectrum in the 900 MHz and 850 MHz expansion bands, which is intended to support wide area coverage suitable for 4G and 5G use. Consultation on the draft legislative instruments opened on 27 April and will close on 24 May. We look forward to your submissions in response to the consultation paper.

More mid band spectrum is expected to become available over the coming year as we progress the licensing and allocation arrangements for the 2 GHz, 3.4 GHz and 3.7–4.2 GHz bands.  These bands are being configured for a range of uses, including wireless broadband, satellite and the Internet of Things.

Looking at some of the new projects that we are proposing for 2021–22, we are informed by ongoing technology developments and international activity. This provides us with evidence about changing spectrum uses and where bands may require reconfiguration to better support an existing use.

In that context we have commenced a consultation to look at potential new planning arrangements in the 6 GHz band, possibly for the next generation of wi-fi. 

We have a number of other bands where we are conducting investigations to assess whether more efficient spectrum arrangements can be achieved, or to allow new applications.

We also have in focus the 1880–1920 MHz band, which we plan to review, noting increasing interest in more apparatus-licensed spectrum for fixed and mobile wireless broadband use.

Informed by the government’s media reform Green Paper considerations, the 600 MHz band is also moving to the initial investigation stage of our planning processes.

And finally, we are also looking to identify replanning considerations for the 1.5 GHz band and Extended Mobile Satellite Services L-Band, where support for new technologies and private networks will also be a consideration.

All of this activity supports ongoing innovation in the Australian communications market.

Digital productivity

In the context of the 2021–22 Budget, in his address to the Business Council of Australia in mid-April the Prime Minister announced the government’s ambition that Australia become one of the world’s leading digital economies within the next 10 years.

The Prime Minister announced funding of nearly $30 million over the next 2 years to support investment in 5G technologies, among other initiatives, to bring this ambition to life.

Making spectrum available is one of the ways that the ACMA supports the introduction of new communications technologies that will accelerate Australia’s digital transformation and build our digital economy.

As always, we value your feedback as we undertake our five-year spectrum outlook update and other consultation processes.

Closing comments

The last year has presented many challenges for the sector but also huge opportunities as consumers and business adjusted to a more digital life.

As evidenced by the events of the last year, the services you deliver are essential to the good running of our country. They are embedded in our personal lives as well as in our collective future success.

As the structure of Australia’s post-COVID economy takes shape, we are keenly attuned to the role that the communications sector will play in recovery and transformation.

This also means that there will be a continued focus on the telco industry in terms of expectations, obligations and outcomes.

I am certain this will be a priority for all of you as it is for the ACMA.

Thank you.

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