Consumers rights still lagging: ACA chief

Australia's communications industry has surged ahead on self-regulation, but consumer rights continue to lag, according to the Australian Communications Authority's retiring acting chairman, Dr Bob Horton.Dr Horton said the shift from dependence on "a formal government regulator" was a credit to both the ACA and the communications industry.

Dr Bob Horton, ACA
Australia's communications industry has surged ahead on self-regulation, but consumer rights continue to lag, according to the Australian Communications Authority's retiring acting chairman, Dr Bob Horton.

Dr Horton said the shift from dependence on "a formal government regulator" was a credit to both the ACA and the communications industry. The ACA -- a Commonwealth statutory authority established under the Australian Communications Authority Act 1997 -- administers legislation governing telecommunications and radiocommunications services in Australia.

"I think we've moved away from that quite successfully," Dr Horton told ZDNet Australia  in an exclusive interview ahead of the imminent merger of the ACA with the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) to form mega-regulator the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

However, he conceded that codes designed to entrench better ethics and practice in the way consumers were treated by communications providers had been "a little longer in the gestation" than codes governing operational matters such as mobile number portability. "The demand side and the supply side aren't quite balanced.

During the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony, a broadcaster caused the radio-controlled cauldron to pause on its ascent for 15 to 20 seconds. The ACA had to swing into action to avoid a major embarrassment.
"Consumers aren't getting as good a deal in the regulatory framework".

The consumer codes would take three years or so to reach a high level of maturity, Dr Horton said, but added that the fact the communications industry was prepared to engage in the process meant it was "on the brink of reaching a higher level of maturity in self-regulation". A new strategy and management -- introduced last year -- at industry body the Australian Communications Industry Forum was a positive step towards a more consumer-accountable communications industry, Dr Horton said.

Under the self-regulatory model, the Australian Communications Industry Forum devises draft codes after consultation with the industry or upon request by the ACA, which then registers the code provided all its concerns are dealt with.

Two years ago, the ACA realised the extent to which the public was on the wrong side of the equation following representations from consumer groups and other indicators including the slowness with which consumer codes were being devised and the lack of balance in many proposed codes.

A collaborative effort involving groups such as the Consumer Telecommunications Network, the Communications Law Centre and disability project group Tedicore, had yielded 71 recommendations to boost consumer representations, around 30 percent of which fell within the ACA's purview.

The Consumer Telecommunications Network is organising a consumer telecommunications summit likely to be held in November this year, Dr Horton revealed, which would debate progress on those recommendations. The regulator had already started work with telecommunications companies on simplifying consumer contracts which had reach the point of being "almost impenetrable" to the person on the street and on processes by which customers could negotiate unexpectedly high bills with their providers.

Dr Horton said the ACA was very much encouraged by cost capping arrangements recently introduced by Optus.

Checklist
Dr Horton, 58, said he has 10 items that require sign-off before he leaves the ACA.

The first is to deliver an organisation ready for the merger to form the Australian Communications and Media Authority. "We now have a structure that is ready to go from July 1," Dr Horton said. "People have been assigned to positions and the work program is sorted for the next year".

He collaborated closely with the acting head of the Australian Broadcasting Authority in readying the merged entity. The federal government is yet to name a chairman for the organisation.

Dr Horton also hopes to draw together an international plan for spam control. While anti-spam legislation and enforcement was in place in Australia, "99 percent of the problem comes from overseas," he said.

Another item is the delivery of rules allowing mobile content providers to provide adult services.
In his view, the key to success was forging the principles behind baseline legislation and cooperative enforcement activity between regulators. A major effort on global compliance -- targeting developing nations, in particular -- is scheduled for the World Summit of the International Telecommunications Union in November, based on a memorandum of understanding between Australia, the United States and United Kingdom and Australia and Korea (subsequently expanded to another 10 countries). The effort particularly targets Internet service providers whose servers are used to distribute spam "whether they know it or not".

Another issue is related to the finalisation of the rules governing Voice over Internet Protocol in Australia.

The ACA is looking at ensuring nomadic VoIP devices were placed in a specific, easily identifiable number range, so an emergency services operator would be prompted to ask a caller for their location when receiving a call.

Another issue under examination is the interceptibility of VoIP calls by law enforcement agencies given that calls can be routed via a number of servers. The feasibility of a multi-server interception capability is under consideration, Dr Horton said. The recommendations are due to go before Communications Minister Senator Helen Coonan shortly. Pending her approval, an implementation plan would be quickly drafted, he said.

Also on his to-do list is dealing with the remainder of the 71 recommendations made by consumer bodies. Dr Horton cautioned that while some of the recommendations would be dealt with positively, those that were not practical for reasons such as the cost and imposition on the industry may not secure support.

I'll pick up some consultancy work. I don't want to vegetate and throw away my accumulated knowledge
-- Dr Bob Horton on retirement.
On the management of spectrum availability for wireless services to rural and regional Australia, he conceded spectrum use had been "underdeveloped" in Australia. The approach of divvying it up into frequency bands for specific use isn't the most efficient way of managing the issue, he added.

He said some services could make use of the same band without too much interference, citing the example of broadband services operating through broadcast bands without affecting broadcasting offerings.

The ACA is also releasing additional spectrum for use of radio by carriers in regional areas to backhaul their services to metropolitan areas. "Radio could break the deadlock" caused by telecommunications providers' excessive pricing for backhaul, Dr Horton said.

On the delivery of broadband services over powerlines, the outgoing chairman said interested parties were required to respond by 24 June to a discussion paper.

The paper -- which covers issues such as the rules of engagement and how to manage interference caused by radio emissions to other services -- forms the basis of rules expected to be issued over the next two to three months. Dr Horton said the rules would look to strike a balance between the concerns of parties such as wireless radio enthusiasts, who are worried about interference to their services, and the need not to stand in the way of progress.

He added that a trial being run by Aurora Energy in Tasmania would provide data that would feed into the review as well.

Adult content
Another item is the delivery of rules allowing mobile content providers to provide adult services.

Due to be finalised by the end of June, it will stipulate minimum expectations in areas such as access controls and identification requirements. Individuals could be required to provide proof of identification in the same way as the banking industry, for example. Rather than be prescriptive, however, the ACA is looking to potentially provide regulatory backup to industry schemes that meet its criteria.

Dr Horton said another area in which the ACA was conducting work was helping determine the criteria by which the Telstra network was assessed as being up to scratch or otherwise. Stressing it was his opinion -- and the new chair's prerogative to make a final decision on -- he said the organisation should, over the next 12 months, develop and deliver an opinion to the Minister on the topic.

The regulator has also put together draft service provider rules governing use of the Integrated Public Number Database. Dr Horton said while concerns over privacy had been accounted for, the ACA had "left the door a little bit open" to the market research fraternity, who need to access at least part of the database for telemarketing activities. The Australian Communications and Media Authority should be in a position to analyse feedback to the consultation process by the end of July.

The final issue to be dealt with is providing regulation of communications infrastructure and facilities for the Commonwealth Games. A critical issue, Dr Horton said, was assigning non-conflicting frequencies for use by various parties. This came to the fore during the Sydney Olympics when interference from a broadcaster during the opening ceremony caused the radio-controlled cauldron to pause on its ascent for 15 to 20 seconds. The ACA -- which had the contract during the Olympics -- was forced to quickly identify the problem and shut down the camera before the Games experienced a major embarrassment.

Dr Horton told ZDNet Australia   he did not plan to leave the industry completely on his retirement. Rather, he would try to pick up some consultancy work. "I don't want to vegetate and throw away my accumulated knowledge," he said.

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