Blues with black spots

Cartoon for Blues with Black Spots

First published in TJA Vol 56 No 1 2006 pp.34-35

The federal government has committed billions in recent years to improve communications for rural and regional Australians. But insufficient has been done to address service inequalities that have bedevilled residents and businesses in outer urban areas for at least 30 years.

Take the following entry in The Latham Diaries for example.

Tuesday, 22 August 1995

“Another blue with Michael Lee, this time over the (046) telephone zone in the southern part of my electorate. Whitlam and Kerin banged on about this for years with no success. Why should people in outer metropolitan areas have to pay STD rates when the unit cost to Telstra is the same right across Sydney?”

So even the highly reformist Whitlam government was out-manoeuvred by the wily managers of the Post Master General’s Department – no doubt working within tight capital borrowing limits in those departmental days.

Gough’s Government had the energy and vision to split the PMG in 1975, creating Telecom Australia and Australia Post as new Government Business Enterprises. But it did not have the foresight to order the PMG beforehand to adapt its telephone numbering and charging plans to allow equitable treatment of its subscribers across the growing cities of Greater Sydney and Melbourne. Not even when the inequities were already raised in the Prime Minister’s own electorate.

Latham’s diary entry continues:

“It is very unfair, plus it’s a barrier to economic development in places like Campbelltown. Just look at the Minto industrial estate – built out on the (02) side of the zone line but vacant on the more expensive (046) side.
“Yes, it’s unfair and uneconomic. It’s also of little concern to our Communications Minister, who has failed to use the telecommunications review to solve this or any other problem. …”

This echoes the plight of the City of Casey, a high-growth southeastern spur of Greater Melbourne, that has entreated successive Ministers for Communications from the mid-1990s to the present to have Cranbourne – a suburb located within Melbourne’s Urban Growth Boundary – included in the Melbourne telephone directories and within the Greater Melbourne telephone charging zones.

For local businesses, exclusion from the metropolitan White and Yellow Pages means less visibility and hence less revenue. For local residents, it means paying 14% more for each outgoing local PSTN call to the metropolitan centre and inner suburbs (25c for Telstra’s capped Wide Area Call versus a standard 22c local call).

Successive Ministers for Communications have fended off Casey and Campbelltown (and Penrith) with correspondence that usually echo the incumbent carrier’s defence of the status quo. It is a case of a structural problem that the market alone simply cannot solve, and therefore requires legislative change.

Perhaps in another ten or twenty years, if all citizens by then have access to distance-independent VoIP calls and have online access to directory listings, the problem will disappear. But this would require a policy change and new legislation, mandating broadband access as the new Universal Service Obligation (a good thing!). This is unlikely while both major political parties prefer the rollout of broadband access to be driven almost entirely by market forces. There are currently many areas without broadband in the outer metro suburbs.

In Latham’s diary entry there are also echoes of the failure of many Ministers to use telecommunications reviews to fix these long-term problems. For example, the 2000 Telecommunications Service (Besley) Inquiry completely missed the aforementioned issues. The subsequent Estens Inquiry concentrated entirely on RRURA: regional, rural and remote parts of Australia.

A key consequence of the Besley and Estens Inquiries was the creation of the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Future Reviews and Other Measures) Act 2005. This stipulates triennial, independent reviews of telecommunications inadequacies in Australia – but only those that arise in RRURA. Why not review inadequacies in telecommunications across the whole of Australia?

The Act allocates substantial funds (the income from $3.1 billion) to enable the Commonwealth to solve the telecommunications inadequacies identified by the independent committee – in RRURA alone.

The restricted ambit of this Act means that ‘black spots’ – i.e. gaps – in broadband or mobile services in outer metropolitan areas, let alone anomalies such as the Cranbourne and Campbelltown telephone zones, simply won’t get scrutinised as part of the Commonwealth’s three-yearly ‘future proofing reviews’. Surprisingly little concern there for the hundreds of thousands of citizens living in the nations’ fastest growing suburbs. No ‘future proofing’ for them! Why is this such a black spot in the policies of the major political parties??

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