Can Australian Telecommunications become more affordable?

The general consensus at the annual Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) national conferenceis was that the cost of telecommunications can be more affordable and the hows and why are discussed in Business Spectator to show that the consumer perspective is an important view that Telcos and the government regulator should not ignore.

Read the full article below

The focus of the annual Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) national conference held in Sydney earlier this week was affordability and the general consensus amongst attendees was that telecommunications can be more affordable.

Access to telecommunications at affordable pricing has been the 'Holy Grail' for many Australians, particularly in regional and remote areas and the current universal service regime that was forged in the 1950s after years of protest by people living in the bush, is now under scrutiny because it does not provide flexible access at affordable prices to the range of services required in everyday life.

In a pre-recorded video the Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull said “the biggest barrier to internet access, as I’ve always said, is not technology, it is affordability. It’s income, or lack of income. So making sure that broadband is affordable, and telecoms generally is affordable, as I’ve said, is critical.”

A key focus for the government this year is to explore how telecommunications can be better used and made available at more affordable prices. The Parliamentary Secretary for Communications Paul Fletcher announced at an earlier ACCAN event that the government would carry out a review of the universal service later this year and recently Fletcher stated that a distance education working group had been established to examine how to utilise the long-term satellite service to improve access to education in remote areas. Another working group is focusing on the provision of health services utilising the new telecommunications infrastructure being rolled out around the nation.

The 2015 statutory review into Regional Telecommunications chaired by Deena Shiff is nearing completion. Speaking at the ACCAN conference, Shiff said that the regional telecommunications review report had been handed to government and it should be tabled in Parliament in coming weeks. Shiff indicated that the review had found a number of issues including that remote satellite users rely heavily on telecommunications for business and social interaction.

"When people talk about data hogs on satellite, it's a bit offensive because they rely so much on communications for their basic needs, and also their business use and their consumer use within a homestead is really sitting within the one plan, so they tend naturally to be above the average users."

The Shadow Assistant Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland told the ACCAN conference that the principles and challenges of affordable telecommunications include:

1.    Choice will continue to drive competition and price, so what is the best way to facilitate choice?

2.    If disruption is now permanent, how valid is any policy response?

3.    Universal service, universal infrastructure, universal obligation, universal fund – they are terms of art that have one thing in common, an equity (or fairness) principle.

“My conclusion reflects a prevalent theme which emerges in many of the submissions to the current Regional Telecommunications Review:  that while the transition to an NBN [National Broadband Network] world provides an opportune policy reform window, there is an exhaustion - stretching from Estens to Glasson to Sinclair - for reform.  While I do believe there is an ongoing role for oversight reflected in the diligent and insightful process that has brought us this far, I would like to think that future conferences of this nature point to the Shiff tenure as the turning point which, paraphrasing what Paul Keating might have said, ‘brought the whole show together’.”

Rowland went on to describe how the principles might become feasible policy directions including identifying new models for accessibility and affordability and how to capitalise on what is working and approaches that demand the attention of policy-makers including:

1. A broadband-enabled universal health care model NetCare, which includes a free low-rate internet connection and access to all online government services;

2. Reg Coutts’ recommendations for establishing a universal service fund with NBN as the Universal Infrastructure Provider and the Standard Communications Service Provider, the obligation on the NBN being to deliver a voice and broadband capability; and

3. The potent advocacy by the Victorian Farmers’ Federation to re-direct some USO funds to other access projects such as mobile blackspots and satellite.

The ACCAN conference was not just about telecommunications affordability for remote and regional users but focused on the disadvantaged in our community and there was a general consensus that telecommunications was essential today for everyone whether they could afford to pay for it or not.

ACCAN CEO Ms Teresa Corbin said in a statement that “technology allows us to complete many tasks from the comfort of our homes, but questions regarding the affordability, accessibility, and availability of communications services need to be addressed so there is equitable access to essential government services and those from other organisations.”

"Affordability, along with a range of other issues, is often cited as a main barrier to getting connected to the internet and may present issues for some consumers to access services.

"For low-income earners, seniors, and other groups, affordability is a barrier to accessing essential online services like Centrelink and Medicare."

There is a need for a bipartisan approach to improving telecommunications access and affordability for all Australians and it will be the realisation that the provision of a free telecommunications service with a monthly call allowance and low bit-rate access to the internet should be the centre piece for a new universal service. The provision of “NetCare” utilising a combination of fixed and mobile communications will ensure that every Australian is provided with access to government services which are progressively being moved online.

One solution to the access and affordability challenge is the provision of free public Wi-Fi utilising the NBN. Public Wi-Fi has long been seen to be against the interest of telecommunications companies but recently this attitude changed with Telstra commencing a national Wi-Fi rollout. It's time that government introduces an expectation that NBN will rollout a national wholesale Wi-Fi network that can be used together with fixed and mobile networks to provide NetCare.

It's critical that the government focus on the bigger picture and ensure that vested interests stop peddling the line that accessible and affordable communications for Australia’s most disadvantaged should come at a cost beyond the government's means.

Mark Gregory is a senior lecturer in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University.

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