The Communications Minister is calling for the public's views on telcos' Universal Service Obligation (USO) -- the responsibility to make sure all Australians have access to at least basic telecoms services.
Senator Helen Coonan, announced a review of the obligation in June, which will examine the cost implications of the USO on Australia's telcos and whether Telstra should be remain the provider of last resort for all citizens.
Coonan has now thrown open the debate to the public, who can participate via the Department for Communications, IT and the Arts' (DCITA) Web site. All submissions must reach the Department before 1 November.
"The review provides an opportunity for consumers to have a say on the effectiveness of the USO arrangements. It also gives telecommunications providers the opportunity to provide input on how the requirements of meeting the USO can be shared equitably," Coonan said in a statement.
Under the current USO, Telstra bears the lion's share of the responsibility for funding the scheme, as telcos' contributions are proportionate to their communications revenue. The company is unhappy with the present arrangement, saying although the government puts the cost of the USO at AU$158 million per year, it believes the actual cost is more in the region of AU$1.7 billion.
The last review of the USO was carried out in 2004. The rapidly changing telecoms environment has prompted the government to consider a new overhaul, the DCITA said.
"The USO relates to the provision of basic telephone services and payphones. Except in limited circumstances, these services have to date been provided via fixed copper infrastructure.
"Increasingly these services can now be delivered through other means, including Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, mobile communications networks and broadband networks," the DCITA Issues Paper, published this week, said.
The review will also examine whether the USO has actually worked counter intuitively by encouraging telcos to provide simple technological offerings when more innovative ones are available.
"There is a risk that the USO delivery model is becoming a blunt instrument that encourages outcomes that are less efficient and effective than desired. The USO delivery model does not recognise or provide incentives for diversified product offerings.
"Given that the USO regime provides for industry to subsidise the delivery of homogenous 'vanilla' services, it may actually be working to limit this diversity by suppressing the competitive delivery of services and thereby limiting choice," the Paper added.