Universal Service & Access: We’re doing it wrong

(This post first appeared as written below in March 2012)

Universal Service and Universal Access

Universal Service is the concept of universal availability of connections for individual households to public telecommunications networks. (ITU)

Universal Access is the concept of providing every person a reasonable means of access to publicly available telecommunications. (ITU) This could be by payphones, community centers, computer rooms at schools, or free wifi hotspots.

Universal Service: We’re doing it wrong

The European Commission and the United Kingdom’s Ofcom take a broad view of Universal Service.

Ofcom requires “telecommunications services which are used by the majority, and are essential to full social and economic inclusion, are made available to everybody on reasonable request and in an appropriate fashion and at an affordable price”.

The EC takes a similar view, defining the scope of Universal Service to include voice and data with functional access to the Internet, provided by either fixed or wireless.

In New Zealand, Universal Service is considered access to a copper land line and free local calling at reasonable price. The Kiwi Share Obligations and later the Telecommunications Service Obligations are strictly focused on provision of voice communications, and guaranteeing price equality between urban and rural users.

Universal Access: We’re doing it wrong

Around the world, governments regulate services and subsidize both carriers and individual users to ensure Universal Access. The underlying social objectives met by Universal Access are well recognized: access to telecommunications services is a prerequisite for education and employment.

In South Africa, local telecommunications centers are established, supplied, and staffed on an ongoing basis by a Universal Service and Access Agency. In the United States, Comcast offers and Internet plan providing unlimited low-speed broadband at $10/month for families on a common federal subsidy program.

In New Zealand, Universal Access is rarely discussed, and when it is, the idea is seldom seen in a positive light. Neither the UFB nor the RBI take into account the concept. The Telecommunications Carriers Forum, lobbying against Universal Access, rubbishes the social inclusion factors cited in the policies of many countries. In the eyes of the TCF, a Universal Access policy would be like a policy helping everyone to own a television or a car.

Who is getting left behind?

The urban poor in New Zealand, many having abandoned fixed lines and the associated monthly charges and surprise usage blow-outs, are left with numerous mobile broadband options, but few with reasonable cost structures. Programs like 2020’s Computers in Homes initiative provide limited-term broadband subsidies to low income families, but only subsidize ADSL connections – which require land line subscriptions. A full 67% of their constituency doesn’t have a land line.

The rural middle class is waking up to the reality that the RBI has them paying huge setup charges for wireless or satellite, then suffering speeds a fraction of those available in the cities while paying three times as much for traffic. While dairy farm owners might not notice, their staff and support networks certainly do.

What should we do in the cities?

Building new, low-cost wireless networks in cities has been suggested by a number of community groups. InternetNZ recently funded such a group in Cannons Creek, Porirua. They’ve been asked to subsidize a far bigger but similar project in Christchurch – to stand alongside seven existing broadband infrastructure networks. It’s not the right answer.

In the cities, existing network operators have the scale and systems to deliver reliable services to large amounts of users at a lower cost than any new entrant can be expected to match. Getting that service to the most needy without upsetting the market is a problem of establishing coherent policy and long-term programs, not more infrastructure.

What should we do in the country?

Building new, low-cost networks in rural areas may be a viable activity to reduce costs to rural users. Centering them around community halls, rural schools, or Marae could be a great way to start. Open-Access RBI towers have been deployed with poorly specified basic 3G service, but have physical space for new service providers. No funding exists for new rural service providers, but perhaps it should – provided they build open-access infrastructure, and they build it in to areas the RBI has missed.
Subsidizing the installation of and use RBI and satellite services is absolutely a step the government should consider. No shepherd, milker, or other low-salary rural worker should have to spend 2-3 times as much as someone in the city for the most basic of broadband connections.

What should we do in Wellington?

The UFB and the RBI now settled, it’s time now for a dialogue about Universal Service and Universal Access. Clear public policy objectives need to be established, and plans for meeting them made. If government doesn’t want to step up, InternetNZ or Ngā Pū Waea are two obvious choices for leading the way.

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