Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy has issued a new set of guidelines for ISPs servicing rural and regional Australia, on the back of the Federal government's decision to extend the Australian Broadband Guarantee (ABG) as part of last Tuesday's budget.
"The Rudd government has announced that AU$270.7 million will be made available to fund the Australian Broadband Guarantee program until June 2012," said Conroy in a statement. "It is important that all Australians have equitable access to broadband, both while the network is being rolled out, and in those most remote areas that the new [fibre-to-the-node] network may not cover," he said.
The draft guidelines — developed in consultation with rural broadband providers and other industry groups — assert that rural ISPs will now have to provide a higher level of service than "currently required", by introducing a cap on excess data charges, and include standard contract clauses in sign-up agreements for all users.
The guidelines dictate that rural ISPs are required to provide access speeds of at least 512/128Kbps to be eligible for ABG funding, with the government also granting subsidies for "added value services" of 1Mbps and over.
Peter Coroneos, CEO of the Internet Industry Association (IIA), believes that by prioritising a "higher level of service" for regional Australia, the government is hoping for users outside of capital cities to attain a "metro-equivalent" service.
"By introducing a 1Mbps capability, I think what [the government's] doing is getting more or less consistent with metropolitan areas," he said.
"We haven't had any adverse reports about any of the guidelines yet, but the draft has only been out a couple of days," said Coroneos.
"At this stage we have to remember it's a draft, so it's still open to suggestion," he said. The government consultation process for the industry closes on 28 May.
Under the guarantee, the Federal government will offer subsidy payments of up to AU$6,000 per customer through a three-tiered funding system, which offers higher payments according to how remote or poorly covered an area may be.
"The recognition that you need to allow for higher expenditure in very remote or hazardous areas is a positive from a public policy standpoint ... the more remote some users are the more important their broadband connections become," said Coroneos.
The guidelines also state that data shaping will occur at "no less than 64Kbps at no cost or excess data charges of no more than five cents per megabyte".
The IIA CEO said he was also encouraged by the move to cap excess data charges, although he was unsure about the maximum five cents per megabyte rate.
"There are probably hundreds of different plans out there, so it's hard to form a view as to whether five cents is reasonable or not," he said.
The government's decision to extend the ABG, and ensuing draft guidelines, have put an end to speculation that the Labor government planned to cut the ABG program, after Opposition spokesperson for Communications, Bruce Billson, pointed to Labor inactivity over the ABG as a sign it was about to be cut.