Have Australians, including regional Australians, become almost as reliant on data connectivity as they are on a reliable phone line? Is the inability to access data - send an email or to use the internet - an inconvenience on par with a phone line outage?
From our family’s property on the Liverpool Plains of NSW I certainly find myself using data more and more in all facets of my life – business, social and leisure. Increasingly I find the solutions to business and household queries online without the need to pick up the phone at all.
I have a strong suspicion that I am not alone. Where connectivity permits that is…..
To reflect this switch in usage patterns the National Farmers Federation is calling on the Government to recognise the intrinsic role data now plays in lives of all Australians including farmers by including a ‘base line’ broadband service in the Universal Service Obligation (USO).
It is no secret a great inequality exists between the reliability and affordability of the connectivity available to urban populations and their regional counterparts.Fiona Simson, President, NFF
Simple tasks taken for granted by metro Australians, such as downloading a short video clip, are rendered impossible when data is low and connectivity poor.
Currently the USO guarantees all Australians standard telephone service and payphone – no matter where they live. Without the USO many regional, rural and remote Australians would not have access not such services. It simply isn’t commercially viable for private telecoms to provide services to these areas.
To make the case the NFF will be appear before the Productivity Commission review of the USO. Encouragingly the inquiry has already acknowledged the merit of including a data component in the USO. Specifically the PC has recommended that the National Broadband Network (nbn) infrastructure be leveraged to deliver the USO – including voice services.
We recognise the logic in transitioning to more modern infrastructure. However the current SkyMuster network is not highly regarded by for its reliability and this proposal has caused understandable concern – particularly in safety or emergency scenarios.
In our address to the inquiry the NFF will asking for Australia’s copper network to be maintained as long as possible until it can be guaranteed that voice over satellite, or another technology for that matter, is reliable and is not a degradation of the voice services currently available.
The potential for the USO to include base level broadband internet connectivity would be a momentous step forward in recognition of the importance data now applies in the lives of everyday regional Australians - including farmers. (Determining what is an adequate ‘base level’ data provision is though, in itself, a significant issue).
Also impacting the USO discussion is a swag of ‘other’ parliamentary processes looking at telecommunications issues from consumer safeguards to mobile roaming. The NFF is concerned that the apparent isolation these ‘reviews’ and ‘studies’ are being carried out in will result in policy discussion that will only extend the rural / urban telecommunications divide. To this end we are calling for an alignment of the PC USO enquiry with these ‘other’ processes.
Ending the data drought continues to be a priority for the NFF during 2017. The NFF is a founding organisation of the Rural, Regional and Remote Communications Coalition RRRC Coalition – a group of like-minded advocacy groups to champion better communications services for consumers and small businesses living in rural, remote or regional areas.
For many NFF members and members of the RRRC Coalition, access to telecommunications is made possible by the USO. Therefore ensuring the USO is in touch with the contemporary communication needs of ALL Australians is vital.
Fiona Simson is the President of the National Farmers' Federation and a farmer on the Liverpool Plains of New South Wales