ACCAN forms coalition to fight for USO reform, NBN and mobile coverage

A 'technology agnostic' USO, fairer access to NBN's satellite service, and a long-term mobile coverage program will improve rural connectivity, a coalition including ACCAN has said.

The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) has formed a coalition to fight for better telecommunications services in rural and regional Australia, with the group announcing five "ambitious and achievable" outcomes.

ACCAN, whose continued funding is currently being considered by the government due to "dramatic changes" in the Australian telecommunications landscape, said those five outcomes include universal service obligation (USO) reform, better access to the National Broadband Network (NBN) Sky Muster satellite service, and a longer-term mobile expansion program.

"The five outcomes are: A universal service obligation that is technology neutral and provides access to both voice and data; customer service guarantees and reliability measures to underpin the provision of voice and data services and deliver more accountability from providers and NBN; long-term public funding for open access mobile network expansion in rural and regional Australia; fair and equitable access to Sky Muster satellite services 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 fully resourced capacity building programs that build digital ability, and provide learning and effective problem solving support for regional, rural, and remote businesses and consumers," the group said.

Also included in the coalition are the National Farmers' Federation, the Country Women's Association of New South Wales, the Isolated Children's Parents' Association, and AgForce Queensland.

"The coalition was formed to highlight the collective concerns of families, businesses, and communities in rural and regional Australia about the lack of equitable access to reliable and quality telecommunications services in regional, rural, and remote Australia," said ACCAN CEO Teresa Corbin.

The government's current rural mobile coverage extension program is finite; under the first round of the mobile blackspots program, Telstra and Vodafone Australia secured AU$185 million in government funding to help build or upgrade 499 mobile towers across Australia; the second round provided a further AU$60 million in funding; and at the end of May, the Coalition pledged an additional AU$60 million to fund a third round of the mobile blackspot program to build or upgrade a further 900 mobile towers.

The "open access mobile network" being argued for by ACCAN's coalition could, however, come to pass through the declaration of wholesale mobile domestic roaming currently being looked into by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which would provide more choice and better pricing by allowing competitors to piggyback off Telstra's mobile infrastructure reaching 98 percent of the population.

USO reform is also currently on the agenda, with the government in April releasing a terms of reference statement detailing the process by which the funding and regulatory arrangements for the USO will be reviewed.

The government acknowledged that the USO -- which mandates Telstra as the fixed-line phone service provider of last resort, giving the telco hundreds of millions of dollars each year for the installation and maintenance of fixed-line services -- is outdated due to the prevalence of mobile services, and consequently needs to be reviewed.

The Productivity Commission must consider what arrangements should be made to ensure all sections of the community are provided for, who should bear the cost of this, the funding model best suited to such intervention, and arrangements from transitioning from the present USO model.

Telstra, however, has said it believes there is "absolutely no chance" that the USO will be removed.

Rival telco Vodafone Australia has been calling for an end to the USO for years, saying the AU$250 million in government and industry funding should instead be spent on such initiatives as the mobile blackspot program.

In terms of home broadband, NBN is using a mix of satellite and fixed-wireless services to cover the most remote 8 percent of the population, or 1 million premises.

NBN launched Sky Muster II in October, the second satellite part of its long-term satellite solution, which provides speeds of 25/5Mbps.

The first of NBN's two new AU$620 million Ka-band satellites was launched a year ago, with commercial services becoming available in April to provide broadband via the projection of 101 spot beams for those not living within the fibre, hybrid fibre-coaxial, and fixed-wireless NBN network footprint.

While 400,000 premises are eligible to order a satellite service, NBN said last year that it foresees only 200,000 to 250,000 will actually take up the system. Were all 400,000 eligible households to order the satellite service, the "fair use" policy would prevent speeds slowing substantially.

With ACCAN arguing in favour of satellite access that is more "equitable" and suits the needs of its users, it is likely that the download limits of 150GB per month plus an extra 50GB for distance education students is an issue to the coalition.

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