Groups call for better bush telco services

The Regional, Rural and Remote Communications Coalition — which brings together 17 organisations including the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) and a range of groups representing regional and rural communities and businesses — has called for a shake-up of the telecommunications sector.

Representatives of groups including ACCAN, Better Internet for Regional, Rural Remote Australia, the National Farmers' Federal and its state-based counterparts in NSW, Victoria and WA, and the Country Women's Association are descending on Canberra to lobby MPs for better services in regional areas.

The groups have five proposals that they say would boost regional Australians’ access to quality telecommunications services.

The coalition is calling for changes to the Universal Service Obligation, a program that currently ensures households have access to a phone service over Telstra’s copper network. The groups are calling for a technology-neutral USO that covers both voice and data.

The USO is currently delivered by Telstra, with the telco receiving some $300 million a year in funding from the government and an industry levy. The scheme is currently the subject of an inquiry by the Productivity Commission.

A draft report issued in December by the PC described the current USO as “anachronistic” and recommend it should be phased out as soon as possible.

“People’s preferences for ubiquitous connectivity, their seemingly insatiable appetite for data and the high value of digital data to businesses and governments generally provide a strong case to revise Australia’s universal service policies,” the draft report argued.

“The Australian Government should reframe the objective for universal telecommunications services to provide a baseline broadband (including voice) service to all premises in Australia, having regard to its accessibility and affordability, once NBN infrastructure is fully rolled out,” it stated.

The USO has also been criticised by Telstra’s rivals.

The coalition is also calling for long term public funding for open access mobile network expansion in rural and regional Australia.

The federal government’s mobile blackspot program has been praised by telcos for aiding infrastructure investment in regional areas. However, the idea being assessed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) of declaring a mobile roaming service and regulating access to mobile telecommunications infrastructure has drawn a mixed response. Although Vodafone is a proponent, Telstra, which has the most extensive mobile network in regional areas, has been a vocal critic.

Many other groups have been lukewarm on the idea. ACCAN, for example, says it does not support it at this stage. However, in a submission to the ACCC inquiry it argued “there may be scope for the government to regulate open-access roaming or co-location on future government-funded [cell] sites, particularly as the proportion of government funding increases.”

The other demands of the groups meeting today in Canberra are:

• Customer service guarantees and reliability measures to underpin the provision of voice and data services, to deliver more accountability from providers and NBN;

• Fair and equitable access to NBN’s Sky Muster satellite for those with a genuine need for the service, and access which reflects the residential, educational and business needs of rural and regional Australia; and

• Funding to build digital literacy and provide problem solving support for regional, rural and remote businesses and consumers.

“Our mission is to highlight to parliamentarians the widening-gap between the digital-haves and the digital have nots — unfortunately the digital have-nots are increasingly regional people,” National Farmers’ Federation president Fiona Simson said in a statement.

“Currently, rurally based Australians struggle to run their businesses, educate their children and complete day-to-day online tasks as a result of unreliable telecommunications services.”

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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