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Telstra backs down over spectrum hoarding and impeding Optus’ 5G rollout

Australia’s biggest telco was interfering with the 5G rollout of one of its rivals by registering various 900 MHz around the country at the start of the year

An Australian regulator has ruled against the country’s biggest telco over spectrum hoarding after it used its access to 900 MHz spectrum to interfere with a rival’s 5G network rollout.

Australia’s Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) has accepted a court-enforceable undertaking from Telstra to address the issue. It was concerned that Telstra’s registrations of 900 MHz sites had the substantial purpose or likely effect of preventing or hindering its rival Optus from the deployment of its 5G network and from engaging in competitive conduct in the retail mobile market, the regulator said today.

Access to low band spectrum is crucial to providing core network coverage for mobile services and the rollout of 5G, said the ACCC. The undertaking requires Telstra to deregister all remaining radiocommunications sites it registered in the 900 MHz spectrum band in January 2022 which would have prevented Optus from early access to the spectrum.

“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,” ACCC commissioner Liza Carver said. “This is critical as 5G network coverage becomes an increasingly important factor in consumer choice in mobile phones and mobile plans.”

Telstra has also undertaken to ensure that its board of directors, CEO and other senior staff are given competition law compliance training.

IT Pro has contacted Telstra and Optus for comment.

Telstra holds a licence for parts of the 900 MHz band until 30 June 2024. Before 31 January 2022, the telco was making little use of the spectrum and hadn’t registered a new site since 2016.

In December 2021, an auction for licences was held in the 850 and 900 MHz spectrum, with Optus emerging as the successful bidder for all of the 900 MHz spectrum on offer. On 9 December, Telstra became aware that early access applications for this spectrum would be considered.

Following this, on 31 January 2022, Telstra registered 315 sites in the 900 MHz band, mostly located in major cities or inner regional areas, under its existing licence. Of those sites registered, the telco then deregistered 153, with 162 remaining registered. The ACCC said that since January, Telstra has only used a limited number of the sites.

The deregistration of the sites registered in January 2022 will facilitate Optus’ ability to apply for early access to the 900 MHz spectrum to roll out its 5G network more broadly, giving consumers more choice over mobile services, added the regulator.

This isn’t the first time that authorities have found Telstra's behaviour to be problematic in Australia. In April 2018, the Federal Court ordered Telstra to pay penalties of $10 million for making false or misleading representations to customers about its third-party billing service known as “Premium Direct Billing”.

Additionally, in May 2021, the telco was ordered by the Federal Court to pay $50 million in penalties for engaging in unconscionable conduct when it sold mobile contracts to more than 100 Indigenous consumers across three states and territories.

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