Govt's alternative voice trial could struggle to attract telcos

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Govt's alternative voice trial could struggle to attract telcos

Depending on the standard their trial services are to be held to.

A planned trial of alternative voice services in regional, rural and remote Australia could struggle to attract providers if trial services are held to the same standards as existing Telstra-backed ones, according to NBN Co.

The comments were made as work progressed on how the planned trials, backed by $2 million in government grants, would run.

Back in 2017, the government said it would eventually ditch the universal service obligation (USO) - under which Telstra provides and maintains voice services to all Australian premises - in favour of a universal services guarantee (USG), where voice services could be delivered by multiple providers.

A trial of newer voice solutions is intended to start in July and run for a year, and the government is currently canvassing its options.

Most major telcos, along with some smaller carriers, have put up their hand as potential trial participants. NBN Co said it also wanted to be part of the mix.

However, NBN Co believed there could be reticence among providers to participate if their trial solutions were held to the same standards as current USO-provided services.

Under the trial, it is expected that end customers will pay to keep their existing (likely Telstra) voice service and then be supplied a free trial service, with all their calls rerouted to the trial service.

“The current USO voice service is overlaid with an extensive list of requirements built up over many years to ensure reliability, timely installation and repairs, modern features (like call forwarding) and, when Telstra was the monopoly access network, means to contract with alternative retail suppliers of voice calls (pre-selection and override),” NBN Co said in a submission. [pdf]

“Consideration should be given to the benefits of signalling a change to the market, and to the needs of telecommunications users, that any alternative voice service will be less prescriptive in its terms and conditions.

“An alternative voice trial service provider may be concerned about the regulatory obligations that will be applied to the service and the liability that would attach to any service failure. 

“To attract participants, the government could consider signalling to the market what regulatory conditions would apply to an alternative service. 

“For example, the provisions of a standard telephone service and all the terms and conditions that have been built up over the years could discourage participation.”

NBN Co said that end users should be educated to “diversify their voice services” so that they had multiple potential options in future in case one went out.

Though NBN Co can and does supply voice services over its fixed wireless and satellite networks, it noted these would never meet the standards set by the USO.

“NBN Co is not the provider of USO voice services, and its networks weren’t designed for this purpose, particularly in NBN satellite and fixed wireless areas,” it said. 

In fine print to the submission, NBN Co said voice over fixed wireless had “no perceptible difference in voice quality and speed to a fixed-line service, but it is not assured to the level of a fixed-line service.”

Additionally, NBN Co said, the fixed wireless network already has over twice as many users as it was designed to support, meaning the infrastructure is already under pressure without having to support USO-matched voice.

On the satellite network, NBN Co noted that voice “needs to traverse 34,000km to the satellite in geostationary orbit around the equator, and back again.”

“Even travelling at the speed of light this means a 125 millisecond delay,” it said.

“NBN Co’s informal testing for voice and video calls indicates a small delay that is almost imperceptible. 

“Calling from one voice service over satellite to another satellite service means a ‘double hop’ in satellite transmission and the delay is more noticeable.”

NBN Co also said satellite services faced “other reliability issues, including short periods of service interruption or degradation from weather events, or ‘rain fade’” that could make them unsuitable for high-quality voice. 

“Heavy rain at an earth station can affect transmission of services to satellite beams hundreds of kilometres away where there are fine conditions,” NBN Co said.

“It is worth noting that these outages are normally of a short duration as rain-related weather events are typically very localised and fast moving.”

One possibility that NBN Co raises to improve the resiliency of satellite services - particularly if they are to carry a USO-like voice service - would be for premises to be connected to more than one satellite.

“With appropriate funding and systems adjustments there are options to provide upstream network diversity on NBN satellite services. In this case the end user could have a secondary satellite network termination device (NTD) configured for an alternative satellite (NBN Co has two satellites - 1A and 1B), reducing the risk of an outage from satellite equipment failure on one satellite,” it said.

Telstra also appeared supportive of lowering some of the regulatory criteria for an alternative voice service to be considered for the trial.

Vodafone also called for flexibility in being able to trial voice solutions that are not yet commercially available, in addition to those that are.

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