Will committee fatigue strand regional telecoms?

Will the Regional Telecommunications Independent Review Committee's report linger as simply yet another ineffectual review guiding limp and ineffectual efforts to improve regional services?
Written by David Braue, Contributor

I was recently reminded of an old uni favourite album, Ed Haynes Sings Ed Haynes, which features 11 senseless, sometimes offensive, but always very clever songs.


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You can't buy it in stores anymore, you can't get it through the iTunes Music Store, and online scalpers are charging up to US$90 for what has become an extremely collectible CD. But I remember the lyrics, 17 years later — especially to the lovingly titled "I Want To Kill Everybody", which starts like this:

Well you get a vote in the Senate, you get a vote in the House
Then the President makes a speech
A committee decides, which committee decides
Which committee decides, which committee decides

As my inbox filled with one pronouncement after another from Senator Stephen Conroy recently, I couldn't help but think of Ed. There was the $1m digital TV survey to find out just who can't receive strong digital TV signals (email them if you want to be included); the $4.8m Digital Tracker research program; a community consultation program on the future of the ABC and SBS; and that's just over the past month.

Now, getting good information to track technology roll outs is important, so perhaps we can allow him this bit of committee-philia. However, Conroy has his work cut out for him after two far more significant reports were handed down: the Australian Industry Group/Deloitte CEO survey High Speed to Broadband: Measuring industry demand for a world class service, and the final report of the Regional Telecommunications Independent Review Committee (RTIRC).

In a government where the committee is the basic operational unit, these reviews provide more than enough food for thought. And, if you can't be bothered reading their reports from beginning to end, let me summarise.

The AIG survey found that businesses think broadband (and, by extension, the NBN) is a great idea, with 93 per cent saying it has a positive impact on their efficiency and productivity. Fully 73.5 per cent would upgrade to faster broadband if it were available, but just one quarter of respondents would pay a premium for it. Most don't want to do anything differently, just faster (90.5 per cent saw the NBN's key benefit as being faster file downloads). Oh, and regional companies are a little bit more eager to upgrade than their city counterparts.

Now, on to the RTIRC. After months of enquiry and a travel itinerary straight out of the Telstra Kombi commercial, the committee reached a dire but hardly surprising conclusion: regional telecommunications suck.

They may have put it more diplomatically, but the report identified a slew of major shortcomings.

  • On mobiles: Telstra's CDMA-Next-G switch-over "was a significant issue"; "a lack of infrastructure competition exposes regional Australians to substantial risks that are not faced by people in urban Australia"; "in our view, mobile telecommunications services are not equitably available in many parts of regional Australia".

  • On broadband: despite the success of the Australian Broadband Guarantee program, "we consider that broadband services remain inadequate in that there is no ongoing assurance of access to broadband services on an equitable basis".

  • On voice: "there are concerns regarding service restoration following faults, and the relative lack of competition".

  • On backhaul: "some providers that are willing to service the local access needs of a community are unable to do so because backhaul prices inhibit competition for retail services. Providers do not have access to sufficient information about aggregate demand ... the Australian Government does not have readily available information on where or how much backhaul transmission is available. This makes it difficult for network builders to effectively plan backhaul investment."

Targeting the dog's breakfast of policy governing regional telecommunications, the RTIRC has recommended a completely new oversight regime, which it calls the "Communications Services Standard" (CSS), to "provide both industry and consumers with a secure footing for their investments and expectations."

Senator Conroy now has until early March to respond to the report, including its 45 individual recommendations; he has $400m to spend on what is basically going to form the policy umbrella for the NBN's regional roll out.

This is all well and good, but I might point out that this isn't the first rural communications review; a similar study was undertaken in 2002 and is still available online for your amusement.

  • On mobiles: "government programs are sufficiently locked-in, through contractual arrangements, to provide a high degree of assurance of service adequacy in this service area in regional, rural and remote Australia."

  • On Telstra's network: "concerns have been raised about the reliability of Telstra's telephone network, and the speed of available internet services, in regional, rural and remote areas... The Government's Network Reliability Framework, strengthened according to Recommendation 2.9 in this report, should deliver adequate services."

  • On broadband: "the Inquiry has noted particularly the growing priority, expressed in submissions, for equitable access in regional, rural and remote Australia to higher bandwidth services ... strong government support ... would resolve much of the concern in regional Australia about slow internet access."

  • And the kicker: "the Inquiry is confident that arrangements have been put in place over the past five years, together with commercial developments, and the Inquiry's further recommendations, will create an environment into the future where regional, rural and remote Australians will be able to benefit fully from advances in telecommunications technology and services."

The last commission (which, by the way, was following on from another enquiry in 2000) was confident the problem would be solved. Yet here we are — 6 November marks the six-year anniversary of that report — waiting for Senator Conroy to decide what steps to take to resolve issues the RTIRC has identified — like the committee before it did. And the one before that.

Haynes' song was about hypocritical, warmongering governments, but his premise applies here as well. Will RTIRC make a real difference, or linger as simply yet another ineffectual review guiding limp and ineffectual efforts to improve regional services? Conroy will be under pressure to break with the government's legacy of ineffectuality, but for now we could all benefit from a healthy dose of scepticism.

Are you struggling on in regional areas? Has the RTIRC addressed the problems you're having? Is the continued lack of improvement a fault of Telstra, a fault of policy or a fault of government itself?

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