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Having a say on the future of voice services

In late January/early February, the Regional, Rural and Remote Communications Coalition (RRRCC) appeared before the Commission at hearings around Australia. The organisations voiced concerns about the future of the USO and in particular, how voice services will be delivered if the USO is changed.

The first of many issues in 2017 to be a focus for the Regional, Rural and Remote Communications Coalition was the Productivity Commission’s Draft Report for the Inquiry into the Universal Service Obligation (USO).

The USO underpins consumers’ access to phone services, including payphones. While many may have never heard about the USO, it is an important obligation that aims to ensure voice services are available and accessible to all Australians.

As part of the Inquiry, the Productivity Commission is examining the possibility of changing how voice services are delivered, and looking at whether the NBN network is the best platform in all areas.

In late January/early February, Coalition members, including the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association (ICPA), the Country Women’s Association (CWA) of NSW, the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF), NSW Farmers, the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), Better Internet for Rural, Regional & Remote Australia (BIRRR), Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) and AgForce Queensland appeared before the Commission at hearings around Australia. The organisations voiced concerns about the future of the USO and in particular, how voice services will be delivered if the USO is changed.

This post covers the public hearings attended by the ICPA, CWA of NSW, NFF, NSW Farmers, ACCAN, BIRRR, VFF and AgForce Queensland.

The issues

Judy Sinclair-Newton, immediate past president of the ICPA, raised issues about distance education and how families struggle to educate their children with unreliable internet and phone services.

I guess a lot of our families are living in remote areas of Australia, often doing distance education with their children, which relies heavily on communications, mostly through internet. Then we also have a lot of the small rural schools as well, and a lot of them also have a lot of issues with no mobile coverage, poor internet services and that sort of thing.
Judy Sinclair-Newton, immediate past president, Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association

At a public hearing in Dubbo, NSW, CWA of NSW President, Annette Turner, highlighted the importance of landline phones in areas where mobile coverage is patchy.

“Although not USO-related, mobile outages are extremely common, and when they do work we have extremely low speeds, and no clear commitment to infrastructure upgrades,” said Mrs Turner. “This needs to be taken into account when considering the USO, as often the landline is the only way to communicate. Some families report poor connectivity with emergency services, which can have significant consequences. When considering if the NBN could play a role in providing a minimum baseline broadband and voice service, the issues of reliability need to be fully considered."

In the view of the Association, the NBN is not a sufficiently reliable platform to deliver USO service. We do not consider that VOIP is an acceptable replacement for a fixed line.
Annette Turner, NSW President, Country Women’s Association

NFF Manager of Rural Affairs, Mark Harvey-Sutton, outlined why farmers need reliable phone and internet services.

“The National Farmers’ Federation believes that connectivity represents the next frontier for agricultural productivity in Australia. Telecommunications services have evolved to the extent that it is now reasonable for baseline broadband to be considered a right for all users,” said Mr Harvey-Sutton.

Regional, rural and remote consumers and businesses need rights to access broadband and voice services, and we urge the Commission to be conscientious and practical in considering a path forward.
Mark Harvey-Sutton, Manager of Rural Affairs, National Farmers' Federation

NSW Farmers President, Derek Schoen, spoke about how important telecommunications services are for all rural and regional consumers.

“This inquiry goes to the very heart of what underpins access to effective telecommunications for regional and rural and remote Australians,” said Mr Schoen. “The current Universal Service Obligation and its associated consumer safeguards have been important in delivering everyone in Australia access to voice services."

However, this is the 21st Century. Voice service is no longer enough if you want to run a business, educate your children, interact with government agencies, access healthcare, or even just communicate with your friends and family.
Derek Schoen, President, NSW Farmers

At the public hearing in Sydney, ACCAN CEO, Teresa Corbin, summarised concerns around changing the USO from an obligation to a policy objective.

“Communications services are undoubtedly essential. ACCAN is concerned that ensuring access to communications service through a policy objective rather than an explicit obligation such as the Universal Service Obligation may result in a moveable goal,” said Ms Corbin.

Varying levels of commitment and funding, depending on the political outlook of the day and the body responsible for delivering the specific elements, may well undermine or affect it in some detrimental way.
Teresa Corbin, CEO, Australian Communications Consumer Action Network

VFF Vice President, Brett Hosking, spoke about the opportunities and improvements that would be available to farmers with improved telecommunications services.

“Whenever we travel out to rural areas, the number one thing that’s talked about is mobile connectivity and access to data and the internet,” said Mr Hosking. “We’re moving very rapidly into a more technological era, and there are a lot of opportunities there for agriculture to improve our productivity, our sustainability, our efficiency, and the opportunities that we have in agriculture. But we’re currently in a situation where we’re very heavily limited by our access to connectivity and data, so I guess in response to the inquiry, we’ve advocated quite strongly for a technology-neutral USO that covers, you know, voice communication as well as data."

We think certainly data should be part of it, without a doubt. We have moved into that part of the world now where data is part of everyday lives.
Brett Hosking, Vice President, Victorian Farmers' Federation

At the Melbourne public hearing, AgForce South-East Regional Director, Georgie Somerset, outlined recommendations on the future of voice services under the USO.

“AgForce recommends that the revised USO not consider a transition to digital telecommunications services such as satellite and fixed wireless in the rural, regional and remote parts of Queensland unless acceptable reliability can be ensured, and that reliable access and quality of service, e.g. for voice services, is not compromised,” said Mrs Somerset. “We do not believe that the current Sky Muster is suitable for voice and we have reservations about the capacity of fixed wireless at the edges of the coverage is going to be able to deliver a voice service."

We believe that the copper line will still be the most reliable for many of our members, particularly in the outer regional and remote.
Georgie Somerset, State Vice President, AgForce Queensland

BIRRR founder, Kristy Sparrow, put forward strong arguments as to why Sky Muster is unsuitable to deliver voice services to people in regional and remote Australia.

“Our submission, which no one paid us to do or funded us to complete, comes from the heart and extensive research and surveys of those using telecommunications in regional areas,” said Mrs Sparrow.  

It tells the real story of what it is like to have no landline phone for six weeks and no working internet for four months. Our submission extensively highlights why NBN Sky Muster, a service designed to deliver fast broadband, will simply not work as a voice service.
Kristy Sparrow, Founder, Better Internet for Rural, Regional & Remote Australia

“NBN specifically states that you should keep your existing landline, because the Sky Muster satellite was not designed for voice. There are several limitations of supply of VOIP service using this network. Our submission details these limitations.

“Additionally, we urge the Commission to consider that the removal of the copper continuity program will see large numbers of residences that are mapped for NBN Sky Muster lose their ADSL connection, and be forced to use, what is in theory, a broadband technology. If copper lines are discontinued, this will significantly increase the load on Sky Muster and also mobile broadband towers, which are already suffering from supply and congestion issues in regional areas.”

The Coalition looks forward to the next stage of the Inquiry when the Productivity Commission will present a report to the Federal Government. A response from the Government is expected later in 2017.

This post was written and compiled by Luke Sutton, Public Relations Officer at ACCAN and first appeared on the ACCAN website in two parts: Having a say on the USO (part one) and Having a say on the USO (part two)

The Rural, Regional and Remote Communications Coalition (RRRCC) has been formed to highlight the collective concerns of families, businesses and communities about inequitable access to telecommunications services in the bush. To stay in the loop on how you can support a better deal for the bush, please register your details here.

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