On March 19 2000 Senator Alston established the Telecommunications Service Inquiry (the Besley Inquiry), chaired by Tim Besley, to make an independent assessment and certification of the adequacy of telecommunications services in metropolitan, regional, rural and remote Australia. Approximately 6% of Australians live in areas defined as 'very remote', 'remote' or 'moderately accessible' according to the Accessibility Remoteness Index of Australia, detailed in the Department of Health and Aged Care Occasional Paper 6.

After six months of independent research and analysis of the service and access issues important to all Australians, the Besley Inquiry Report was submitted to the federal government on September 30 2000.

On May 15 2001 the federal government responded to the Besley Inquiry by providing an outline of its response and announcing a funding package of $163 million to further improve basic phone services and response times, mobile telephone coverage, internet speeds and health and education network services in regional, rural and remote Australia.

Initiatives included the following:

  • strengthening the customer service guarantee to reduce new standard telephone service connection times in remote areas where there is no infrastructure from 12 months to six months, and requiring that Telstra (and other primary service providers) include in the Universal Service Obligation an undertaking to offer interim and temporary services or solutions in various situations;

  • participation in a joint venture with Telstra to fund a $50 million Government Internet Assistance Programme over three years, for the purpose of providing a range of help services to solve internet problems and achieve an effective internet service speed equivalent to at least 19.2 kilobits per second, providing better quality and faster access to dial-up internet services for residential and small business users, no matter where they live or carry out their business;

  • strengthening the regulations relating to maintaining and improving the quality of services provided pursuant to the Telecommunications Act's statutory obligation to provide a vast array of telecommunications services to all of Australia, and a revision of the reporting framework for primary service providers, which will allow consumers to make more informed decisions based on price and quality;

  • $37.7 million to fund the capital costs of expanding mobile phone coverage in population centres of 500 and above, subject to confirmation of community needs and ongoing viability;

  • $50.5 million to find other means of providing greater access to affordable mobile telecommunications in other areas of Australia currently without terrestrial services;

  • $52.2 million for a National Communications Fund to assist significant telecommunications projects in the health and education services sectors for regional, rural and remote communities;

  • $400,000 to undertake a study of the telecommunications requirements of remote indigenous communities and provide the best possible access to reliable payphones and other services;

  • $6.9 million to deliver a community information marketing campaign to inform regional, rural and remote Australia of the benefits and opportunities that are available through current government communications funding initiatives, the availability of communications services and consumer safeguards and rights; and

  • $3.4 million to fund increased consumer consultation and representation regarding telecommunications regulation and research in telecommunications, with an emphasis on increasing representation from consumers with disabilities or from consumers in regional, rural and remote Australia.

The government's response is designed to co-exist with and complement other related federal agendas. These include the following:

  • the $250 million Networking the Nation programme;

  • the $671 million set aside for the social bonus programmes funded by the partial sale of Telstra;

  • the Universal Service Obligation; and

  • the continued introduction of service providers into the Australian market.

Of these initiatives the government's commitment of $52.2 million to establish a National Communications Fund, to aid in the development and implementation of the telecommunications networks necessary to deliver telemedicine and online education applications to regional, rural and remote Australian communities, is viewed by many as one of the most important.

This latest round of initiatives announced by the federal government is certain to have a significant impact. It will result in an enhancement of the accessibility and adequacy of telecommunications services for all Australians throughout Australia.

For further information on this topic please contact Robert Smith at Blake Dawson Waldron by telephone (+61 2 9258 6000) or by fax (+61 2 9258 6999) or by e-mail ([email protected]).

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