Key Reform – telecommunications universal service obligation
Telecommunications policy is one of the biggest issues for the regions. Its potential impact on basic services like health and education, economic development and improving access to government departments like Medicare and Centrelink makes it critical to all regional Australians.
Tech talk like fibre to the node versus fibre to the premise and the ‘internet of things’ can be challenging to keep up with, but it is an important dialogue regions need to be a part of.
The RAI’s submission to the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry into the Telecommunications Universal Service Obligation (USO) outlines why a new USO on broadband and mobile is crucial to the future of regional Australia.
In April 2016, the Productivity Commission released the Terms of Reference for a new inquiry into Australia’s Telecommunications Universal Service Obligation (USO).
In its current state the USO outlines the Government’s commitment to providing all Australians with access to standard telephone services (home phone) and pay phones.
In an era of the NBN, smartphones, tablets and Google glass, this USO is getting very close to being irrelevant.
The Productivity Commission’s inquiry will be crucial in defining what a modern USO could look like and testing the claims by some that we don’t need one at all.
While in the short term, it is the investment in the NBN that will bring regional telecommunications up to date, updating the USO is a chance to look past this and prepare ourselves for an environment where technology will change, both in terms of what we need and how much it costs to deliver.
For the 1.7 million regional Australians who live in the “Heartland’s” beyond our major cities, regional cities and large regional centres, the existence of a USO is their assurance that they will be kept in the game.
A quick look at what is likely to re-emerge without a new USO can be gained from looking at the RAI’s [In]Sight: Technological Readiness Index. This shows that the digital divide is one of the starkest areas of relative disadvantage and one that exacerbates differences in health, education and economic outcomes for regional people.
[In]Sight shows that only 68 per cent of households in regional Australia have internet connection. This is compared to 81 per of households in the major capital cities.
Likewise, regional areas have have on average only 75 per cent mobile phone coverage, compared to 97 per cent of the major capital cities.
The RAI also emphasises that we should assess the potential savings to governments if we have a USO. With a USO in place, governments can readily deliver new developments in telehealth and distance education to communities. The savings and benefits of these measures are expected to be many billions of dollars and could offset or eliminate the net cost of maintaining the USO.
Government policies and programmes like the NBN and Mobile Black Spot Programme have been introduced to improve telecommunications in regional Australia. But they do not provide an ongoing commitment to decent telecommunications services, particularly as technology and its use continues to evolve.
The RAI is encouraging the Productivity Commission to consider the options for a USO that include both mobile and internet. Without this, many regional Australians will again be excluded from the opportunity to use telecommunications to develop businesses, maintain their health and improve their education.
We look forward to the outcomes of the Productivity Commission Inquiry on this important issue for regions.
To read the Regional Australia Institute’s submission to the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry click here
To find more about the Inquiry and to read the Productivity Commission’s Issues Paper visit the Productivity Commission website.