THE push is on for a more modern and dynamic Universal Services Obligation (USO) framework to ensure better telecommunications in the bush.
Maranoa MP David Littleproud (Nat) said the USO was created as a result of Telstra’s privatisation, and was devised to protect landline and payphone services, which were the principle delivery method of telecommunications at that time in rural and regional Australia.
"However, technology advancements have seen the importance of mobility in our telecommunications mix and the use of mobile phones for both voice telephony and data has become one of the most essential tools of the 21st century for rural and regional Australians,” Mr Littleproud said.
If we don't put in place the regulatory framework now, these towers could become white elephants in years to come.
"Currently almost $300 million a year is paid to Telstra, as the principle provider of the USO, to deliver standard telephone services and maintain payphones – $100m of that comes from taxpayers and the balance from telcos through a levy charged yearly. In the early 1990s, there were more than 80,000 payphones across Australia but this number has dwindled to just over 17,000 payphones in June 2016.
"Interestingly, every year $44m of the $300m is still designated to payphones, a technology which has reduced substantially since the USO's formation due to the popularity and affordability of mobile phones.”
Mr Littleproud said the reality that any expansion of the existing network was limited to programs – like the Federal Government’s Mobile Phone Black Spot Program – meant that without co-investment, regional Australia was on its own, with its current infrastructure which wasn't being maintained to a satisfactory standard.
Mr Littlerproud extended an invitation to Telstra chief executive officer Andrew Penn, who visited Winton on Thursday, to start meaningful discussions on constructive reform to the USO that would include mobile phone coverage for the regions.
A spokesperson for Telstra said the company remained open to renegotiating the USO arrangements if it resulted in customers receiving a better service, more efficiently.
“Any changes though need to be in the interests of regional communities,” the spokesperson said.
Mr Littleproud said the only way he saw a way forward was to reshape telecommunications policy for regional Australia to fit the technology mix for the now, and into the future, and the last vehicle available to legislators was to address the USO.
“Transforming the USO that continues to protect landlines, which are essential for safety of those living in remote areas, payphones (until their ultimate demise) and now mobile phone coverage,” Mr Littleproud said.
"If we don't put in place the regulatory framework now, these towers – due to commercial reality – could become white elephants in years to come. By looking at the USO in a pragmatic way should also provide the opportunity to expand the network. Diverting part of the fund into the continuation of the Mobile Phone Black Spot Program would be a unique opportunity to provide expanded coverage in a methodical and sensible way and one in which my National Party colleagues support."