Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association presidents around Australia have banded together to express concern at the possible loss of landline telephone services in the wake of the release of the final report by the Productivity Commission into the the telecommunications universal services obligation.
The Turnbull government tabled the final report on June 19, making a range of recommendations regarding communications service delivery in regional and remote Australia, which the government is now considering in detail.
ICPA leaders say the report has failed to address the importance of a fixed landline for many residents in rural Australia.
“If the report's recommendations are accepted by the federal government, rural Australians who live in the nbn satellite footprint and rely on a fixed landline as their principal means of communication could be forced onto a sub-standard service,” federal president Wendy Hick said.
“A voice service over satellite internet could be the only alternative for these families and would be severely compromised by poor weather, power outages and latency issues.”
ICPA has been vocal in its opposition to the removal of the fixed landline guarantee, travelling to Cairns to present at Queensland’s only public hearing.
The “last 3 per cent” or 90,000 premises across Australia without access to mobile phones shouldn’t be forgotten and put in the too hard basket, according to Wendy Hick.
ICPA’s concerns have been reflected by the Regional Rural and Remote Communications Coalition, which said that despite a number of positives in the telco reform package, the coalition continued to have concerns over the proposal that nbn and mobile services should replace fixed-line telephone services.
“We do not agree with the PC’s view that mobile coverage outside the home is sufficient for rural areas,” NFF chief executive Tony Mahar said.
“Many rural and regional consumers rely on these services to stay in touch with family, run businesses and stay connected during emergencies.
“Rural consumers should not have to climb to the top of buildings, walk to the end of their property or purchase elaborate and expensive repeater devices, to ensure they have voice services.”
Fourteen months ago, rural lobby groups, including AgForce, welcomed the announcement of the Productivity Commission enquiry into the USO, saying regional Australians were seeking more flexibility in their telecommunications options.
The commission’s draft report was released at the start of the year and set alarm bells ringing for groups such as Better Internet for Rural Regional and Remote Australia, which pointed to many examples of landline services not working.
People such as the Butler family at Blackall joined the chorus, expressing safety concerns without the backstop of a fixed landline service, saying their landline was their lifeline.
The final report recommended the abolition of the USO by 2020, but Queensland ICPA president Kim Hughes said no solution had been provided for those who would have to rely on a voice over satellite service, or the impact this would have on educational outcomes.
“At present, Voice over Internet Protocol is not a viable alternative,” Kim said, calling for a rethink.
Her NSW counterpart, Kate Treweeke said satellite VoIP relied on electricity, and satellite internet had data capping restrictions that will provide a much less functional service.
“The removal of the USO, which currently stipulates 24 hour access to landline, would also put these families at greater risk in a life threatening situation,” she said.
According to a joint media release by Communications Minister Mitch Fifield and Regional Communications Minister Fiona Nash, “targeted consultation will be undertaken over coming months to inform the government's response”.
“Any changes to the USO regulatory environment and contractual arrangements will be implemented in a constructive, careful and considered manner, and will be mindful of the particular needs of regional and remote communities, industry and other stakeholders,” they said.
As noted in the report, the government will shortly introduce legislation establishing a new ‘Statutory Infrastructure Provider' obligation on NBN Co (and other providers) so that people across Australia are able to access super-fast broadband services into the future.
The legislation will also establish the Regional Broadband Scheme to provide ongoing funding for the loss-making NBN fixed wireless and satellite networks serving regional and remote Australia.
The government has established a USO taskforce, within the Department of Communications and the Arts, to give consideration to the PC's report.