Data drought: Bar must be raised for bush phone, internet
Jack Archer, Chief Executive Officer, Regional Australia Institute, The Weekly Times,
Early next month the Government will receive the Productivity Commission’s draft report on the merits of upgrading the telecommunications Universal Service Obligation.
Its implications are crucial for regional people.
The USO is the guarantee that ensures every Australian household has access to a landline telephone. Currently the Australian Government contracts Telstra to ensure home phones and a largely redundant payphone network are maintained nationwide.
Prior to changes in technology, the USO was a highly effective way of providing all Australians access to telecommunications.
Unfortunately, the current USO has not been upgraded in a quarter of a century. This is a key reason why the digital divide between the city and the bush has become a critical challenge for regions.
In our submission to the Productivity Commission, the Regional Australia Institute encouraged an upgrade of the USO to include access to both broadband and mobile services. These are the key telecommunications of the 21st century and must be the focus of any future USO.
The USO should be set for what is being commonly accessed and used by people and small businesses in the city. Equivalent services is the ideal, but — as with the NBN — concessions on technology and service qualities that can be delivered will be needed in some remote areas.
The arguments against doing this are the cost and the complexity of implementing such a change in our telecommunications industry.
The RAI also encouraged the Productivity Commission to test the assumptions about cost versus benefits of USO reform. Considerations of disruption to telecommunications companies should not come before better services for regional people.
The immediate cost to the taxpayer of putting a USO in place may be reasonable and can be substantially offset by existing investment. The existing payments to Telstra are a resource that can be redirected.
Having the NBN build locked in to bring broadband up to scratch means the heavy lifting on fixed broadband is already being done. The Government is also already investing in the mobile blackspot program.
Changing services on the back of the USO should save the Government money because it won’t need to maintain legacy services. Tele-health and education providers will be more easily able to develop services if they know what the baseline levels for accessibility will be. More importantly, it will support better health and education outcomes in the bush and other parts of the country.
Deloitte has estimated the benefits of better government online service delivery at about $25 billion. This scale of potential benefit is backed up by similar studies in the UK. If a new USO unlocks a fraction of this it will bring a return.
A new USO would provide certainty for people in the bush; certainty about what standard of telecommunications they can rely upon in their businesses and in accessing health and education services for their families.
They will also have confidence that the damaging digital divide will be closed and when technology changes again, they won’t be left behind.