The Productivity Commission is currently holding an inquiry into the "Universal Service Obligation" — originally designed to ensure that everyone could have access to a traditional telephone service. Lobby group Internet Australia has told the Productivity Commission the USO should be expanded to include a "right to Internet access via fast and affordable broadband" — especially as 2016 is The National Year of Digital Inclusion.
Internet Australia CEO Laurie Patton says "our response is based on the underlying principle of the global Internet Society, of which we are a chapter, that 'The Internet is for Everyone'. These days for many people Internet access is as important as having a telephone, perhaps more important".
In its submission to the Productivity Commission, Internet Australia noted the United Nations resolution on "The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet" from 27 June 2016. In its resolution the UN calls for "national Internet-related public policies that have the objective of universal access and enjoyment of human rights at their core".
In the 21st Century access to the Internet is an essential service, Internet Australia says in its submission. "Accordingly, we submit that the provisions of the Universal Service Obligation (USO) need to be expanded so as to ensure that in future access to the Internet via a suitable fast and reliable broadband connection is universally available, just as they now provide an entitlement to a telephone service".
The submission contains four recommendations:
1. The Universal Service Obligation be extended to include the provision of broadband services that deliver access to the Internet and are reasonably accessible to all Australians.
2. That the Universal Service Obligation be expanded from a voice telephony service or its equivalent, to include a minimum level of broadband service; and that appropriate minimum performance standards and benchmarks for technology neutral broadband services be set.
3. That the Universal Service Obligation include provisions that ensure that access to the Internet via a suitable fast and reliable broadband connection is available at an affordable price determined in collaboration with appropriate government and non-government welfare agencies and consumer representatives.
4. That the delivery of Internet access via a suitable fast and reliable broadband connection be funded by government.
"The underlying rationale for governments to impose universal service obligations on private sector providers of essential services is to create a form of safety net for citizens who because of financial hardship, disability, or remoteness of location will not receive adequate minimum services through the actions of the market," The Internet Australia submission states.
"Traditional telephony technologies are increasingly redundant in the Australian market place, and it is clear that the existing universal service obligations are failing to deliver an adequate safety net for citizens in accessing modern communications technologies. Access to the Internet should include both appropriate upload and download speeds, be affordable, and in particular should be available to people in rural, regional and remote areas and to people with disabilities".
The current USO is funded in part by an industry levy with additional government support. Internet Australia argues that the cost of an expanded USO (the delivery of Internet access via broadband) should be funded by government. The National Broadband Network only provides a wholesale service and relies on third parties to sell to consumers.
Delivery of Internet access via broadband under an expanded USO would involve collaboration between the National Broadband Network company and the Retail Service Providers that stand between the NBN and retail consumers.
"Keeping the USO appropriate in an increasingly Internet-dependent world should be a top priority for the Australian government. Failure to ensure universal access to the Internet will entrench a 'digital divide' and cause greater hardship for already disadvantaged groups and individuals", Mr Patton concluded.