Australia kicks off regional telco review

The federal government has convened a new regional telecommunications review committee to look into the proposed Universal Service Guarantee, as well as the quality of and access to voice and broadband services.

The Australian government has announced that its three-yearly review of regional telecommunications services will begin shortly, with Regional Communications Minister Senator Bridget McKenzie unveiling the new committee.

"The review will examine regional telecommunications issues closely and examine how rural Australians can maximise the economic and social benefits that next-generation telecommunication services can provide," McKenzie, who was appointed as minister in December, said on Monday.

"The Coalition government recognises the benefits that improved connectivity can bring to the families, communities, and businesses in our regions."

The Regional Telecommunications Independent Review Committee pointed towards health and education as primary factors in considering whether regional telco access is suitable.

"Though the government has already delivered great improvements in regional telecommunications, this cannot be the end of the story," committee member Johanna Plante said.

"With technologies continuously evolving, we need a sustainable framework that ensures regional areas will have timely access to the business and social opportunities flowing from such innovations. This is what I see as the challenge for this review."

Plante previously served as chair of the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), with the group welcoming the review and saying Plante "understands these issues first hand".

"There is much room for improvement when it comes to bush telecommunications," ACCAN CEO Teresa Corbin said. "Improving connectivity can dramatically improve people's lives, in particular through access to vital services such as health and education."

National Farmers' Federation's Telecommunications Committee chair Georgie Somerset added that the review is coming at a "critical point in time for Australian agriculture".

"Farms are becoming increasingly digitalised, yet we remain hampered by a lack of connectivity, and we know this connectivity is needed to take our industry to the next level of productivity," Somerset said.

Submissions will open soon, the government said, with public consultations to take place later this year and a report due by the end of September. Among other issues, the committee will look into the Universal Service Guarantee (USG), which will ensure all Australians have access to voice and broadband services.

The government had in January argued that its Regional Broadband Scheme (RBS) charge and recently-announced replacement system for the Universal Service Obligation (USO) will form an "integrated package" providing both the funding for and access to telecommunications services in regional areas.

The Telecommunications (Regional Broadband Scheme) Charge Bill 2017 proposes a AU$7 monthly charge to fixed-line broadband customers to subsidise those connecting to the loss-making National Broadband Network (NBN) satellite and fixed-wireless services.

Also under consideration is the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer) Bill 2017, which would place Statutory Infrastructure Provider (SIP) obligations on NBN to ensure the company has a legislated obligation to connect all Australian premises.

"The government considers that establishing the SIP and RBS regimes, before further progressing USO reform, provides an important, timely, and much-needed safety net, particularly for regional and remote consumers," the government explained in its response to the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee's report.

According to the government, its recent decision to replace the USO with a USG underpinned by a SIP framework simply "highlights the importance of ensuring there is a mechanism in place to secure funding of NBN's loss-making networks".

"The proposed SIP obligations will ensure that all people in Australia are able to order a high-speed broadband service regardless of where they live, and that NBN becomes the default SIP as the network is rolled out. The RBS will provide equitable and transparent funding for the loss-making NBN fixed-wireless and satellite networks in regional Australia," it said.

"The SIP obligations and the RBS form an integrated package. One cannot proceed without the other."

According to the government, the RBS is "the most equitable and transparent way to fund broadband services" in regional areas across the nation.

The previous regional telco review was tabled at the end of 2015, and made 12 recommendations on how the government can improve regional access to telco services to leverage connectivity for business, education, health, and personal purposes.

The 12 recommendations involved: Managing demand and prioritising traffic on NBN's satellite service; increasing the flexibility of NBN satellite services for retail service providers and providing data usage alerts; extending the NBN fixed-wireless footprint to reduce satellite customer numbers; the federal government co-investing with state governments and telcos to upgrade public safety wireless networks; and requiring telco services to be deployed or upgraded whenever other infrastructure development occurs.

Also recommended was making information about under-utilised regional assets such as dark fibre more transparent; allowing NBN to use satellite backhaul and terrestrial backhaul in regional areas; developing a technology-neutral consumer communications standard for data and voice services; establishing a Consumer Communication Fund; continuing information delivery from the ACCAN to help consumers make informed choices; providing better information on the NBN rollout and technologies being used; and reporting further on regional telco availability and affordability.

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