The Northern Territory government has attacked Canberra over a glut of telecommunications reviews it blames for creating a “state of flux” in regional Australia.
In a withering submission [pdf] to the ongoing 2018 regional telecommunications review, the NT government cites a "plethora" of reviews as damaging investment and development in regional areas.
“The direction for telecommunications services, particularly in regional and remote areas, is difficult to reliably determine and plan given the multiplicity of reviews and inquiries being progressed and the extent of changes potentially contemplated,” it said.
It cites a number of recent reviews, including the productivity commission inquiry into the national universal service obligation (USO), which the federal government has subsequently agreed to ditch after the NBN rollout is complete, and various joint standing committees into the rollout of the NBN.
“The plethora of reviews indicates a state of flux with potential for divergent and substantial service impacts in remote areas, and sets a background of uncertainty and confusion which is not conductive to investment ad economic advancement.”
Similar reviews have been conducted in 2008, 2012 and 2015, which Minister for Corporate and Information Services Lauren Moss said had changed little across the territory.
“The Territory Government and other territory organisations and individuals have provided input into multiple telecommunications reviews and inquiries over the years and it’s caused nothing but confusion and uncertainty,” Moss said.
“We don’t need another review. We know what the issues are – we need investment and action.”
The NT submission to the review indicates that while urban centres across the territory are well served, the situation is vastly different in the remote communities that are home to around 70,000 people.
“We have 21 remote communities with no mobile phone service, 33 with no fixed internet service and 37 connected to the NBN via unreliable or unsuitable satellite services,” Moss said.
In these remote communities mobile phone coverage “is almost always provided by one service provider” and landline coverage suffers the consistent risk of disconnection.
“The NT government is receiving reports that basic landline telephone services, which remain the primary means of connecting with the outside world in very remote areas, are in jeopardy, owing to lack of skilled technicians able to work with the outdated technology equipment in these areas,” the territory's submission states.
“Instances are being advised of public and private landline telephone outages extending for month and leaving families and communities isolated.”
The government accepts that telco services in remote areas “cannot be achieved on solely commercial grounds”, one of the reasons it has jointly-funded remote telco infrastructure programs with Telstra.
It also notes that while the NBN is “opening up opportunities for online communication in remote areas”, particularly the positive changes recently introduced like doubling data limits for Sky Muster satellite service users, this is “not sufficient to provide the standards of service that is necessary to close the digital divide”.
“Of the 29 percent of remote NT residents and businesses scheduled to receive the NBN via Sky Muster satellite, almost half do not have mobile phone access and have no alternative internet access, even using costly mobile phone data," the government said.
“To date less than 20 percent of the potential NBN satellite broadband users in remote NT have taken up the service, leaving over 80 percent without access to the NBN.
“Remote NT residents are not choosing to have satellite dishes installed and to sign-up to monthly data plans, evidencing that this model is not meeting their needs.
“It is important to ensure the digital divide is not exacerbated by the regional implementation of pre-defined NBN solutions and other remote telecommunications where extant infrastructure can support superior solutions, such as fixed wireless.”
Moss has repeated her call to the federal government to improve territory access to high quality telco services.