news The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) has said the scope of Universal Service Obligation (USO) needs to be expanded, alongside measures to increase affordability and inclusion for people with disabilities to ensure all consumers have access to essential communications services.
ACCAN made the comments in its submission to the Productivity Commission’s review of the Universal Service Obligation (USO), which is set up to ensure standard telephone services (STS) and payphones are reasonably accessible to all Australians.
While the current USO guarantees supply of a standard telephone voice service, ACCAN believes this scope must be broadened to also guarantee data services and essential content such as education and government services. It should also include service guarantees for connection, fault repairs and reliability standards, the body said.
“Communications services are essential for consumers to get access to government services, education and more,” said ACCAN CEO Teresa Corbin.
“In today’s digital age we need a USO with a broader scope and one that takes into account the breadth of services we are using, including data services and content,” she said. “We also need a USO that is going to guarantee that we have timeframes around getting connected to voice and data services and that these services are reliable.”
Further, ACCAN claimed to have identified “inadequacies” in current low-income support arrangements, proposing that they be reviewed to overcome affordability barriers.
Previous ACCAN and SACOSS research found that many low-income consumers are struggling to pay their telecommunications costs with 62% of respondents either experiencing difficulty paying, having to cut back or stop using one or more services for financial reasons in the last 12 months.
Affordability measures going forward should be retail service provider independent to give consumers choice in their provider, ACCAN said.
“Our research shows that low-income consumers do struggle to get and stay connected to telecommunications services,” said Corbin.
She suggested affordability issues could be addressed through a revised Centrelink Telephone Allowance or through the expansion of carrier licence conditions, so that all retail service providers are required to offer low-income support and service.
“Another alternative could see NBN provide eligible end users with a coupon or voucher for discounted services to be redeemed from their choice of service provider,” she said.
ACCAN’s submission additionally provided two recommendations related to greater accessibility for people with a disability.
The first recommended that a Disability Telecommunication Service be established to provide communications information, equipment provision, training and support.
The second recommendation suggested that the National Relay Service (NRS) should be expanded to include services for deaf-blind and multilingual consumers, with all services being offered 24 hours a day.
“A disability equipment program that is flexible and reflects the current communications technologies and consumer trends is needed under the USO,” said Corbin. “People with disability have diverse communications needs and therefore an updated USO must move away from a one-size-fits-all equipment program.”
While the National Relay Service provides consumers who are deaf, hearing-impaired or speech-impaired with a functionally equivalent service to the standard telephone service, the video relay service is only provided on a “limited basis”.
“This excludes Auslan [sign language] users from functionally equivalent services,” Corbin said. “ACCAN argues that video relay needs to be provided on a 24/7 basis.”