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New Universal Service Guarantee being developed in Australia to ensure access to voice and broadband services for all citizens

New Universal Service Guarantee being developed in Australia to ensure access to voice and broadband services for all citizens

The Australian Government has announced
a programme of work to implement a new Universal Service Guarantee (USG), which
will ensure all Australians have access to voice and broadband services,
regardless of where they live. This will be delivered on a commercial basis by
the market in the first instance, and where this cannot be achieved, options
will be developed for targeted Government measures.

The USG will be developed following
the Productivity Commission inquiry into
the Universal Service Obligation (USO).
The USO was introduced in the 1990s to ensure ‘reasonable access’ to a
standard telephone service and payphones for all Australians on an ‘equitable’
basis, regardless of where people reside or work. But the widespread
availability and usage of mobile and broadband services has changed the
scenario. The government is also rolling out the AU$49 billion National
Broadband Network (NBN)
to enable the provision of wholesale broadband services (with voice capability)
to all premises (on request) within Australia.

The review was conducted in view of these developments to
evaluate the utility of the USO and check if the significant taxpayer
investment in TUSO is achieving value for money. It found that the USO is
'anachronistic and costly' and should be 'replaced by a new framework to
reflect changing policy, market and technological realities'. The report said
that the NBN and mobile networks will likely meet most requirements. Flexible,
transparent approaches should be used to address remaining gaps.

The plans for the USG are a response to the report from the
Productivity Commission (the Government’s response to the PC report can be
accessed here).

As part of the development of the new USG, the Government is
committed to voice telephony services via the existing Universal Service
Obligation (USO) contract with Telstra until this is replaced with a USG
following the completion of the National Broadband Network rollout in 2020.

The Government will develop options to implement a USG which
ensures all Australian premises have access to retail voice and broadband
services delivered on a commercial basis, underpinned by the Statutory
Infrastructure Provider (SIP) framework
currently before Parliament.  

The new SIP obligations make NBN Co the default
‘infrastructure provider of last resort’. There will be a requirement on NBN Co
to connect premises and supply wholesale broadband services on reasonable
request. NBN Co will become the SIP for areas as it rolls out its network and
it will be the default SIP for all of Australia after the NBN is declared built
and fully operational. Other network providers can also be SIPs where
appropriate, for example where they have contracts to service premises in a new
real estate development.

Where necessary, options will be developed for targeted
Government measures, for example, to deliver alternative voice services to
premises in the NBN satellite footprint which don’t have mobile coverage.

The Government has also commenced work on cost and delivery
options to provide for a future Universal Service Guarantee, and will consider
the future allocation of the AU$100 million in annual funding it currently pays
into the existing USO contract as part of any change to existing USO

In developing options for implementing a future Universal
Service Guarantee, the Government will examine the feasibility and cost
implications of issues such as alternative means of providing voice services to
premises in NBN Co’s satellite footprint, recognising that NBN Co’s satellites
are designed for broadband not voice services and the potential impact on NBN
Co’s costs and network design as premises currently served by Telstra under the
USO migrate to NBN infrastructure.

Before any changes are made to the existing USO, the USG
will need to meet the following requirements:

  1. broadband services are available to 100 per cent of
    Australian premises, on request, at the completion of the NBN rollout in 2020
  2. voice services are available to 100 per cent of Australian
    premises on request
  3. any proposed new service delivery arrangements are more cost
    effective than the existing USO contract (including any transitional costs)
  4. a new consumer safeguards framework is in place following a
    review and associated public consultation process.

Minister for Communications, Senator Mitch Fifield said, “The
Government is taking a ‘belt and braces’ approach to protecting
telecommunications accessibility for people in regional Australia. The Government
is putting new, stronger safeguards in place before making any changes to
existing safeguards while the NBN is rolled out.”

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