Telstra: No longer your last resort?

Telstra may no longer be the average Aussie's last resort for communications -- the government has announced that it is looking into the telco's Universal Service Obligation (USO), and it could be ripe for change.Speaking yesterday, Communications Minister Helen Coonan unveiled a review of a telecommunications regulation that could see Telstra pay less towards ensuring all Australians can access basic services.

Telstra may no longer be the average Aussie's last resort for communications -- the government has announced that it is looking into the telco's Universal Service Obligation (USO), and it could be ripe for change.

Speaking yesterday, Communications Minister Helen Coonan unveiled a review of a telecommunications regulation that could see Telstra pay less towards ensuring all Australians can access basic services.

Currently, all Australian telecoms providers have to pay an amount proportionate to their market share to ensure all the country's residents can get access to telecoms services. Telstra, however, is not happy with the present arrangement.

The official annual cost of the USO, according to a Telstra spokesperson, was AU$158 million per year, but the telco believed the actual cost was up to AU$1.7 billion. Telstra contributes 65 percent of the official USO cost, Optus 20 percent, Vodafone Australia 5 percent and Hutchison 3G 1 percent.

"Telstra has argued that the amount its competitors contribute to the USO does not reflect their costs incurred providing the obligation. This USO Review will test this argument and inform my decision on setting the next round of USO subsidy levels," Coonan said.

"The government remains fully committed to all Australians having access to basic telecommunications services and we will not be rolling back essential consumer protections provided by the USO."

Coonan said the intention of the review was not to wind back services to regional areas.

The government will now investigate whether Telstra should be charged with being the provider of last resort in all circumstances. "Should Telstra be required to be the Universal Service Provider in a greenfield estate where another company wins the development contract to be the infrastructure provider for that estate? Or should the company that wins that contract also bear the responsibility for the provision of a telephone service in that new estate?" Coonan asked.

The Minister added that the government has no intention of repealing the USO but does intend to make sure all communications providers are sharing the load equally.

She said the government would consider Telstra's concerns and might decide to impose some USO obligations on other phone companies.

Senator Coonan also confirmed the USO review could affect the rollout of super-fast broadband in the cities. "The discharge of the Universal Service Obligations and who does it and how, could impact on the fibre rollout and it's something that can be taken into account in the terms of reference that the expert task force has before them."

One obligation on the country's biggest telco has been removed though. Senator Coonan has decided to lift the compulsion for Telstra to ensure all users can access a 64kbps data line, saying the Australian Broadband Guarantee -- which guarantees the last one percent of users outside traditional networks will have an Internet connection -- has essentially made such an obligation redundant.

AAP's Peter Jean contributed to this report.

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