Academic journal article Nebula

New Technology and the Universal Service Obligation in Australia: Drifting towards Exclusion?

Academic journal article Nebula

New Technology and the Universal Service Obligation in Australia: Drifting towards Exclusion?

Article excerpt

The ability for citizens to communicate with each other and the state is an enduring foundation of democracy. In a country such as Australia, with its relatively sparse and widely dispersed population, the ability to link the citizenship remotely through technology facilitated the development of nationalist ideologies when the separated colonies united at the time of Federation in 1901. The Universal Service Obligation is the mechanism that ensures that every Australian is linked through the telephone network, and potentially through the Internet. However the system is not without its flaws. There are serious implications for those who fall outside this 'universal' ability to communicate.

This article tracks the development of the Universal Service Obligation: the mechanism through which the Australian Government requires telecommunications companies--primarily Telstra--to provide a minimum level of telephone service to all Australians. Exactly what constitutes that basic service, how, and at what level it is provided is a subject of debate that centres on how the words universal, service and obligation are interpreted and defined. The colonial past provides the framework for the current debates about the rollout of new telecommunications infrastructure. The development of telecommunications in Australia and the role of government in that development has changed significantly over time, from the Postmaster-General's Department as a government department through the deregulation of the telecommunications sector and the privatisation of Telstra. The history of language and ideology of access to the telecommunication network informs its present positioning.

On February 6, 2002, ten-year-old Sam Boulding died of an asthma attack while in his home, an isolated property in Kergunya in northeast Victoria. His mother Rose Boulding who is blind was unable to call for help because her phone was not working despite having travelled to a public payphone to ask Telstra to repair it ten days earlier. (1) Her partner ran to a neighbouring property to call for an ambulance, and they eventually drove to a nearby post office to again call for help and meet the ambulance after the child had collapsed. Telstra admitted that it had failed to fix her broken phone line in a timely manner despite her request that they do so (which she was only able to make with considerable effort by travelling to a public telephone in a nearby town). (2)

This case is a tragedy but it does highlight important arguments about telecommunications service in Australia, and specifically what is considered a level of acceptable service. Access to essential services is made through the telephone. In this case the 'essential' service was not just an ambulance, although this was the most crucial, but also not without some sense of irony, a telephone was needed to report a fault in the telephone service. This access via the phone to these services is of greater importance in rural areas where there are fewer alternative forms of access to services that are provided through the telephone network, (3) and fewer alternate locations to source access to the telephone network, such as public telephones. (4)

The fact that the family eventually travelled to a post office to access a telephone and to meet the ambulance also serves to illustrate the role of the post office as both a point of access to public services, and also its historic link to telecommunications in Australia. Rose Boulding's disability also highlights questions of access to the telephone network for those with disabilities and whose responsibility it is to provide these services. Finally, the perceived role of Telstra, a private company, albeit at that stage still half owned by the Australian Government, to provide telephone services to the Boulding family, and their failure to provide timely repairs raises the question of who bears social and economic responsibility for access to the telephone network in Australia and how services are delivered. …

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