A revolutionary telecoms policy change is happening, without much notice being taken of it in glare of the Telstra-NBN Co-Commonwealth Definitive Agreement, NBN pricing plans, the ACCC’s deliberations on the fixed line services final access determination etc. This is the new universal service obligation (USO) policy. There is a shift from the USO being a statutorily-imposed requirement on Telstra – a condition of holding its telecoms licence if I recall correctly – to a commercial, contracting-out model.
So come the revolution on I July 2012, the obligation to meet the USO will no longer be imposed on Telstra by legislative fiat. Rather, this will switch to the soon-to-be-created Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency (TUSMA – the pronunciation of which at least got a laugh from the PM at the Definitive Agreement press conference!), which will in turn contract out the meeting of this obligation, on a commercial basis, to parties who will actually provide the on-the-ground service. Quite some change …………. !
The policy significance of this change is perhaps masked by the contracted out arrangement that will occur in the “first instance” – for a slong as the next 20 years – not looking much different to that which has occurred for the past 25+ years or however long it is – Telstra will be the party to meet the obligation. The difference is that Telstra will be engaged to do this on a contracted, commercial basis, meaning that a price has been struck on terms that both parties – the Commonwealth and Telstra – presumably think is a reasonable deal. Exactly what is required of Telstra in this role will be spelled out in the contract, with the usual non-delivery penalty and termination clauses, and meeting this obligation will be enforced as required through the use of the courts rather than vague and ultimately hollow threats of Telstra’s licence being withdrawn. I have played a small but significant role in this process, providing the Communications Department officials involved in the negation with independent estimates of the cost to Telstra of meeting key USO commitments based on 2009-10 costs – see the following link: http://www.dbcde.gov.au/broadband/national_broadband_network/universal_service_policy
This does not mean of course that there will be no USO-related regulation. ACMA will still have a role in defining the standards for the services to be delivered – the standard telephone service in the non-fibre area and payphones in particular – but ensuring adherence to these standards will, I expect, be pursued through the commercial contract, and the civil courts if necessary, rather than through direct action by regulatory bodies.
I don’t know how this strikes you, but to me this is quite some change. Quite a quiet revolution has occurred while most eyes have been on the more dramatic lightning strikes ……..