The federal government has asked the Productivity Commission to review the telecommunications Universal Service Obligation (USO) in light of ongoing changes to the industry landscape and to customer expectations and behaviour.
The immediate trigger for the USO review was a finding of the Regional Telecommunications Review earlier this year.
That review found that the service at the core of the USO – the voice-only Standard Telephone Service – was of declining relevance and called for the current scheme to be replaced by a Consumer Communications Standard that would encompass both voice and data services.
At the same time, the structurally separated model that has been adopted for the delivery of fixed broadband – the NBN – requires a re-think of where responsibility for service availability may in future lie.
This is not the first time, of course, that calls have been made for the reshaping and expansion of the USO. But a fundamental question has always been how such an enlargement would be funded.
Industry has quarrelled over the real costs of the USO since the basic elements of the current scheme were established in the early 1990s. As long as it, or its replacement, continues to be funded through an industry levy, contributing carriers can be expected to fight any new obligations like poison.
The Productivity Commission will have its work cut out to arrive at a solution which meets growing consumer appetite for both higher bandwidth services and ubiquitous mobility without greatly enlarging financial obligations on either industry or government or both.
The CWU will be reviewing its own position on these questions in the coming weeks.