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Broadband for all: telecommunications inquiry considers universal access

Telecommunications has come a long way since the universal service obligation was first devised to guarantee reasonably accessible phone lines for all Australians, and the Productivity Commission has been asked to take a look at whether the instrument needs a digital upgrade.

July 21 is the closing date for submissions on how government policy around guaranteed access to communications should change as mobile phones and myriad new forms of online communications grow in popularity, driving a corresponding drop in usage of the public landline network and the disappearance of payphones.

There is perhaps no better illustration of this shift than Telstra’s decision to turn phone booths into wi-fi hotspots in cities and towns around the country. The PC says there is no data on who still uses public phones, but their number almost halved between 2003-04 and 2014-15. Through the course of its inquiry, the PC wants to fill in these gaps so — among a lot of other information — it is asking:

“How many USO standard telephone services are currently provided and where? Who are the main groups of users of USO standard telephone services and payphones? What are the respective shares of these user groups?”

Telstra’s current 20-year USO agreement runs till 2032 and just covers fixed-line services, providing the company with $253 million per annum for phone lines and $44 million for payphones. The agreement mandates an independent review of the technologies and systems Telstra uses to meet the USO at the half-way point in 2022.

The PC’s issues paper to assist anyone making a submission explains the agreement is part of “a series of separate, yet inter-related agreements” between the government, Telstra and NBN Co as the national data network is built:

“Within the context of the NBN rollout, Telstra is responsible for operating and maintaining its existing copper network in areas outside of NBN Co’s fixed-line footprint … and providing voice services over that network. Telstra is also required to act as the retailer of last resort to provide standard telephone services on request over the NBN fixed-line network.”

Ahead of its draft report in December, which will be followed by another round of consultation and a full report the following April, the PC is seeking a large amount of information about the adequacy of the current USO arrangements, and how they might need to change.

Part of that involves a need to look at any other policies that could be relevant, like those that affect the provision of all telecommunications, not just those provided under the USO, or the government’s mobile black spot program:

“What other current government policies and programs interact with the current USO or may be seen as acting as a substitute for the USO? What are their main benefits and costs? How effective are these policies and programs in achieving their objectives?”

The inquiry is also a chance to take a step back and consider what the USO seeks to achieve, and how than can best be done now and into the foreseeable future.

The paper points out that one reason every Australian needs reasonable access to communications is to access government services, but notes the number of these that are accessible online, through myGov for example.

More modern policies implemented overseas range from “market-based approaches to having a high degree of government intervention and subsidisation” and often, these days, require near-universal broadband access.

There is lots to consider about what government should provide and what it should demand from the telecommunications industry on behalf of citizens, and less than a month to have your say.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.