WWDA Submission to the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts on the ‘Review of the Operation of the Universal Service Obligation and the Customer Service Guarantee’


This document is the Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) response to the Australian Government’s Review of the Operation of the Universal Service Obligation and the Customer Service Guarantee, conducted in early 2004. Copyright WWDA February 2004.


1. Background

The Australian Government is conducting this review to fulfil its responsibilities under section 159A of the Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Service Standards) Act 1999, and as part of its response to the Regional Telecommunications Inquiry (Nov 2002).

This submission serves to state the position which Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) holds with respect to this Review. Its dual purpose is to inform WWDA members of the Review and how the operation of the Universal Service Obligation (USO) and the Customer Service Guarantee (CSG) may affect delivery of their telephone services. Therefore this section is largely of an explanatory nature.

Following are synopses of relevant parts of the Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Service Standards) Act 1999.

1.1. Outline of the Act

The Act is linked in to correspond with the objects and regulatory policy sections of the Telecommunications Act 1997. A simple outline of the Act under review is that:

    • It establishes a Universal Service Regime which ensures that all people in Australia, wherever they reside or carry on business should have reasonable access on an equitable basis to a standard telephone service (STS), payphones and prescribed carriage services. (In this submission Standard Telephone Services will be taken to include supply of Digital Data Services (DDS) and Special Digital Data Services (SDDS) under their respective Service Obligations, the DDSO and SDDSO).

 

    • Provision is made for the National Relay Service (NRS). The NRS provides persons who are deaf or who have a hearing and/or speech impairment with access to a standard telephone service on terms, and in circumstances, that are comparable to the access other Australians have to a standard telephone service.

 

    • Local calls are to be charged for on an untimed basis.

 

    • The Australian Communications Authority (ACA) may make performance standards to be complied with by Carriage Service Providers (CSPs) in relation to customer service.

 

    • Certain carriers and CSPs must enter into the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman scheme.

 

    • The ACA may impose requirements on carriers, CSPS and certain other persons in relation to emergency call services.

 

    • Telstra is subject to price control arrangements.

 

  • This Act regulates telephone sex services.

1.2. Object of the Act

The objects of the part of the Act relevant to this review are to give effect to the following policy principles:

 

    • all people in Australia, wherever they reside or carry on business, should have reasonable access, on an equitable basis, to standard telephone services (STSs) (including digital data services where applicable); payphones; and prescribed carriage services;

 

    • the USO (DDSO and SDDSO) should be fulfilled as efficiently and economically as practicable;

 

    • the losses that result from supplying loss making services in the course of fulfilling the USO should be shared among carriers; and

 

  • information on the basis of which, and the methods by which, those losses and those carriers’ respective shares in those losses are to be determined should be open to scrutiny by both carriers and the public.

1.3. Part 2 – the Universal Service Obligation

The USO is an instrument imposed on telecommunications carriers to ensure that the STSs , payphones and prescribed carriage services are reasonably accessible to all people in Australia on an equitable basis. In most instances the STS is for voice telephony, but must include other equivalent access such as used by people with disabilities, e.g. the National Relay Service and Text Telephony (TTY). (A Standard Telephone Service for the most part is delivered as voice telephony, but includes equivalent access by other means, such as use of the National Relay Service or Text Telephony (TTY).

Part 2 also provides for telecommunications carriers to pay a levy to cover losses incurred by carriers in fulfilling the USO in unprofitable situations. The losses are shared among all carriers in proportion to their eligible revenue. Each carrier’s contribution is currently calculated at the end of each financial year, and carriers pay their contributions in one lump sum. Currently Telstra is the National Universal Service Provider (NUSP) and Digital Data Service Provider (DDSP). Because it also provides a high proportion of STSs in profitable areas, it is liable for a correspondingly high proportion of the levy.

1.4. Part 5 – Customer Service Guarantee

Part 5 of the Act concerns the CSG. The purpose of the CSG Standard is to encourage service quality improvements and to guard against poor service in certain key problem areas by establishing standards for specified customer services. It concerns the making of arrangements with customers; the provision of information to customers; the connection period that carriage service providers may offer to customers; the period taken to rectify a fault following a customer report; and the keeping of appointments, where the appointment relates to connection or fault rectification.

There are currently approximately 400,000 services in loss making areas. Part 5 of the Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Service Standards) Act 1999 enhances Section 105 of the Telecommunications Act 1997, contributing to improved monitoring and performance.


2. Terms of Reference

2.1. Terms relevant to the Government’s responsibilities under Section 159A of the Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Service Standards) Act 1999.

1. Review the operation of Parts 2 and 5 of the Act to determine whether those Parts best promote the objects of the Act and of Part 2 (as set out in section 3 of the Telecommunications Act 1997 and section 8A of the above Act). In Part 2, the efficacy of the arrangements to enable the operation of the Digital Data Service Obligation (DDSO) and the Special Digital Data Service Obligation (SDDSO) regimes must also be examined. In Part 5, the findings of the ACA’s 2001 Review of the CSG will be taken into account.

2. Examine whether the contestability regime, and the ability of providers to offer alternative telecommunications services, has resulted in an improvement in technologies and services available to people in rural and remote Australia compared with what is on offer to people in metropolitan Australia.

2.2. Recommendations from the RTI. (Recommendations 2.2 to 2.6 are relevant to this review.)

WWDA notes that Recommendation 2.1 of the RTI was: “Telstra should continue to work with representatives of people with disabilities to resolve any service concerns, and consider their practical suggestions for service improvements. The Government should consider any national policy issues raised with the Inquiry, relating to access to telecommunications for people with disabilities.” Clearly the Inquiry found that issues of accessibility to telecommunications services for people with disabilities overrides considerations of the location of the delivery of services. Such considerations are pertinent to this Review.

3. Review the efficacy of the current statutory arrangements for the costing and funding of the USO, including whether current arrangements are impeding the development of competition in regional, rural and remote Australia.

4. Examine whether network extension and trenching costs are impeding access to USO services for subscribers, and whether such costs should be removed from subscribers, and either borne by Telstra as part of its USO provision, or supported by the Government through subsidies.


3. WWDA Response

3.1. Part 2 – Efficacy of Universal Service Obligation

3.1.1. General
WWDA would like it noted that in telecommunications in Australia there are currently two meanings of ‘accessible’ in use. The first is that used to describe telephone services and especially payphone services. Here it pertains to the availability of the services 24 hours a day and affords a way of measuring the reliability of the services. The second use of the term refers to telecommunications equipment, services and information and the adaptations which are made to these so that people with disabilities can have access, e.g. the hearing loop coupler, raised pin on the touchpad number ‘5’ and volume control on standard phones. These differences need to be clarified in legislation and policy.

In addition WWDA is mindful that the Terms of Reference are restricted to consideration of the delivery of STSs in rural and remote Australia. However, it needs to be noted that the USO and CSG must always have clauses which ensure equitable and accessible delivery of services to people with disabilities. The telecommunications needs of people with disabilities are of heightened importance in rural and remote Australia where the problems for people with disabilities can be exacerbated because they have restricted access to adaptable equipment and need reliable access to services in emergency situations.

WWDA is also cautious about the terminology used in the definition of the USO such that the STS need to give ‘reasonable access’ to consumers. This does not provide certainty for consumers, as there is room for wide interpretation of the term and allows regulatory bodies to be less than vigilant.

3.1.2. Costing and Funding of the USO
(i) The fact that the Act specifies the amendment of the Universal Service Regime to improve its general operation, particularly in relation to contestability, costing and funding, indicates that there are problems in all these areas. It would be advisable to ensure that sufficient research is carried out to enable prediction of precisely what amendments need to be made. The undertaking of two pilot schemes in regional Australia to trial the competitive supply of services under the USO does not seem a sufficient research input on which to base making changes.

(ii) In general, the Act outlines a number of initiatives purporting to strengthen the USO and the Universal Service Provider (USP) regime. However these initiatives are not prescriptive enough for consumers to have confidence that the USO would not be diluted in some way when competitors are in the marketplace.

(iii) Funding certainty is important. USPs do need some certainty about their earnings and the subsidy level which will be delivered in supplying rural and remote services. The Act outlines that USPs would benefit from having a determination of the net universal service cost for up to three financial years in advance.

However the Act contains no guidelines as to how sufficient information can be obtained from data from USPs and the ACA to enable prediction of the costs of fulfilling the USO in loss- making areas. The Government would have to decide how such research could be funded.

(iv) Similarly carriers and CSPs paying the levy would benefit from having an indication of their liabilities on a three year basis. It would also be beneficial if the payment did not have to be made in a lump sum at the end of the financial year, so that the money could be made available progressively to the USP.

(v) The current situation where there are a significant number of defaults on levy payments reduces the ability of USPs to provide services. The proposed default margins and Minister’s discretion to modify the default formula for calculation of levy debits are good.

(vi) There needs to be a transparent and competitive selection process for the award of the subsidy allocated for the provision of untimed local calls in remote Australia. The successful tenderer subsequently becomes the USP.

(vii) At present there are too many exemptions as to which companies are required to contribute to the USO levy. Certainly the funding base for the USO and DDSO needs to be expanded to include carriage service providers as well as carriers. A review of exemption criteria is also needed as there is justification for the funding base to be even further extended.

(viii) Current levy guarantees have proved difficult to enforce; no provision for outstanding debts to be carried-forward for subsequent assessments. No levy can be distributed until all contributions have been paid. Little information has been disclosed, hindering industry and public scrutiny.

(ix) One difficulty is that if a plethora of small carriage service providers are in the marketplace, all will fall below the eligible revenue level. There will need to be guidelines as to the number of competitors in the marketplace and a corresponding ability to lower the eligible revenue level.

(x) Such changes will affect the operation of the Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Service Standards) Act 1999 and require substantial changes to the Telecommunications (Universal Service Levy) Act 1997.

(xi) The recommended increased research by the ACA will result in increased expenditure which will have to be recovered from the industry through carrier licence application charges and annual charges imposed by the Telecommunications (Carrier Licence Charges) Act 1997.

(xii) WWDA is concerned about problems with the current administration of the USO. There is a need for accuracy in assessing the costs of fulfilling the USO in loss-making areas. There is need for transparency in reporting these to the ACA. Similarly there needs to be transparency in the assessment of contributions. There is also a need for efficiency of delivery of services to minimise or eliminate avoidable costs. There is little in the present Act which would cause more careful reporting and monitoring, yet the costing and funding of the USO is dependent on these matters. Such administrative concerns need to be solved before there is consideration of introducing competition.

3.1.3. Contestability
(i) The present arrangements mean there is a lack of consumer choice and little or no incentive for other carriers to enter and supply services which are by definition loss-making. WWDA contends that there are some areas in Australia where it is not feasible for parallel competitive services to operate. The proposed ‘Competition to be the sole USP’ model simply enables the supply of the service to change from one monopoly to another. This sort of competition to be the sole USP in the one area could lead to chopping and changing of carriers/CSPs which would be unproductive and uneconomical for companies and consumers alike. Consumers want an efficient service delivered at the lowest possible cost, and this is not necessarily achieved by having competitors in the marketplace.

(ii) WWDA believes that the proposed ‘Multi-carrier USO contestability’ model is also flawed. In loss-making areas, all competing companies would need subsidy to operate. This would lead to a dilution of the value of the subsidy with consequent increase in the levies required. Ultimately these costs would be passed on to the Australian taxpayer thereby negating the ‘benefits’ of the lower prices brought about by competition. Moreover, in any situation where Telstra already owns the infrastructure, WWDA believes that a Telstra wholesale customer would be unable to offer competitive prices. The argument that competition between multiple carriers would promote greater incentives to improve service offerings is not valid in either model. Incentives such as Social Bonus spending or State Government contributions could be structured in such a way as to achieve improved services from a single USP.

(iii) WWDA firmly believes that the model to ‘Repeal the USO legislation and rely on market forces’ is a dangerous option. Where market forces operate, accessibility and disability equipment programs are loss-making propositions, they are abandoned in the name of profitability and efficiency and people with disabilities miss out. The USO must be maintained and strengthened to deliver accessible and equitable service with current and future technologies.

(iv) WWDA has only anecdotal evidence about the affect of current limited introduction of competition and alternative telecommunications services in rural and remote areas. The impression received from members is that overall services have not improved.

(v) Current arrangements are impeding the development of competition. However WWDA believes that the introduction of competition will not necessarily be beneficial for consumers in many rural and remote areas. Rather regulatory mechanisms and incentives need to be put in place to improve services from the USP.

3.2. Part 5 – Efficacy of the CSG

3.2.1. General
(i) The CSG puts a framework for quality improvement in the delivery of telecommunications services, especially to rural and remote areas. It is important that CSG also has standards applicable to assist registered people with disabilities reliant on phones in emergency situations.

(ii) Part 5 of the Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Service Standards) Act 1999 is sufficiently prescriptive to fulfill both its object and the object of the Telecommunications Act 1997 (section 3 and 4) for existing landline services. The parameters it sets should also serve alternative telecommunications services now and in the short term future. Despite the adequacy of the CSG, indications are that customer service levels have been decreasing. This indicates that the problem lies in enforcement of and adherence to the CSG. Increasing the level of fines for non-compliance and increasing the level of payments for customer damages may be sufficient to achieve this.

(iii) The limitations of both Acts are that they do not specify which CSPs must have a CSG. WWDA believes that all CSPs should be required to adhere to the CSG. At present only a limited number of CSPs provide CSG services. Moreover, only Telstra and C&W Optus provide comprehensive CSG data to ACA so general data about the CSG services market is limited. The Act under review does not address this problem. To that extent it does not meet the object of the Act.

No matter what the size of the CSP or the type of service supplied, consumers in each area (metropolitan, regional, rural, remote, private, business) need to know what installation, repair, appointment schedules apply to each particular type of service. This serves as a tool to enable consumers to judge between competitors when contracting for a service. Operating with a CSG encourages best practice and a framework for improvement and this should apply to small CSPs as well as large ones. The degree to which the CSG serves this purpose depends on the accuracy with which the delivery parameters are set. Each type of telecommunications service will need its own set of performance standards. The CSG requirements set should be the same for CSPs providing the same type of service.

(iv) The existing arrangements for a customer to waive adherence to the CSG remain appropriate, and are not dependent on the carrier or the platform environment.

(v) The existing arrangements for apportioning liability (under section 118A of the Act) between CSPs should be sufficient to operate efficiently in a multi-carrier, multi-platform environment.

(vi) In conclusion the CSG needs to be strengthened at the administrative rather than the legislative level, applied universally to all carriers and CSPs, and the parameters need to be altered to be appropriate for each type of telecommunications service (or telecommunications network technology, e.g. wired – PSTN, ISDN, DSL, Optic Fibre; Hybrid Fibre Coaxial Cable; or wireless – Cellular Mobile, Microwave, Broadband wireless, Satellite).

3.2.2. Network Extension and Trenching costs
It is likely that these costs are impeding access to USO services for subscribers. Such costs should not be burdened on subscribers. They may initially be borne by Telstra (or other USP), but should be regarded as part of the cost of supplying services in loss making areas. Under existing levy arrangements these costs are then reimbursed to the relevant USP. As outlined in Para.3.1.2, 3-year costing cycles and greater certainty of reimbursement would make the cost of network extension and trenching less burdensome on the USP, and enable faster delivery of services to consumers. In general, the cost of supplying any service in a loss making area, irrespective of what technology is involved, should be recouped through the levy subsidy system. As outlined in Para.3.1.1, the set up of competing infrastructures in loss-making areas should not be supported. It will most likely become less common for network extension in remote and rural areas to involve the laying of cable.


4. Conclusion

Overall the Act needs strengthening in Part 2 to enable the USO to be better met by USPs. More research needs to be undertaken to enable moving to a 3-year funding cycle for the collection and distribution of levies. This may mean ACA funding has to be boosted by raising carrier and CSP licence charges.

Competition does not necessarily deliver price cuts and better services to consumers. Duplication of similar infrastructure services must be viewed with caution. Competition introduced in the form of competing alternative telecommunication services may be positive for consumers. Once again, research and pilot trials are needed before proceeding. It must be recognised that consumer and commercial desires for competition are vastly different.

Part 5 of the Act is largely adequate but need strengthening so that CSGs can be applied universally. Research is needed to establish suitable CSG parameters for alternative telephone services. The onus for adherence to CSGs is on regulatory bodies to make administrative changes.


References

Regional Telecommunications Inquiry. Commonwealth of Australia 2002

Review of the Telecommunications Customer Service Guarantee, Discussion Paper, Australian Communications Authority 2001

Telecommunications Act 1997, Commonwealth of Australia 1997

Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Service Standards) Act 1999, Commonwealth of Australia 1999

Telecommunications (Universal Service Levy) Act 1997, Commonwealth of Australia 1997


Appendix 1: About Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA)

Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) was incorporated in 1995 and evolved from the National Women’s Network within Disabled People’s International Australia (DPIA), where it had been operating as an un-funded Network for some eight years. WWDA was initially established by a group of women with disabilities who felt that their needs and concerns were not being acknowledged or addressed within the broader disability sector, or the women’s sector in Australia.

Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) is the peak organisation for women with all types of disabilities in Australia. It is a federating body of individuals and networks in each State and Territory of Australia and is made up of women with disabilities and associated organisations. The national secretariat is located in Tasmania, an island State of Australia. WWDA is run by women with disabilities, for women with disabilities. It is the only organisation of its kind in Australia and one of only a very small number internationally. WWDA is inclusive and does not discriminate against any disability. WWDA seeks to ensure opportunities in all walks of life for all women with disabilities. In this it aims to increase awareness of, and address issues faced by, women with disabilities in the community. WWDA seeks to ensure the advancement of education of society to the status and needs of women with disabilities in order to promote equity, reduce suffering, poverty, discrimination and exploitation of women with disabilities. WWDA is unique, in that it operates as a national disability organisation; a national women’s organisation; and a national human rights organisation.

WWDA addresses disability within a social model, which identifies the barriers and restrictions facing women with disabilities as the focus for reform.

The aim of Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) is to be a national voice for the needs and rights of women with disabilities and a national force to improve the lives and life chances of women with disabilities.

The objectives of Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) are:

  • to actively promote the participation of women with disabilities in all aspects of social, economic, political and cultural life;
  • to advocate on issues of concern to women with disabilities in Australia; and
  • to seek to be the national representative organisation for women with disabilities in Australia by: undertaking systemic advocacy; providing policy advice; undertaking research; and providing support, information and education.

More information about Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) can be found on WWDA’s website at: www.wwda.org.au


Appendix 2: The Position Of Women With Disabilities In Australia – A Snapshot

Women with disabilities are, from the government record, one of the most marginalised and disadvantaged groups in Australia. Analysis of data available from a variety of sources, gives us the following information about women with disabilities in Australia.

    • There are 3.6 million people in Australia with a disability, making up 19% of the total population. The proportion of males and females with a disability is similar (around 9.5% each) although it varies across age groups.

 

    • There are 1.8 million women with disabilities in Australia. There are more women with disabilities in the older age groups, most notably those 79 years onwards.

 

    • Of the 1.1 million people with a profound or severe core activity restriction, 616,000 are women with disabilities (56%). Among older people with disabilities, the rates of severe and profound disability are markedly greater for females.

 

    • Over 57% of women with disabilities living in households need assistance to move around or go out, shower or dress, prepare meals, do housework, undertake property maintenance or paperwork, or communicate.

 

    • Women with disabilities are less likely to be in paid work than other women, men with disabilities or the population as a whole. Men with disabilities are almost twice as likely to have jobs than women with disabilities. In 1997-98 Commonwealth Government funded open employment services assisted over 31,000 people with disabilities in their efforts to find and maintain jobs on the open labour market. 66.6% of those assisted were men with disabilities. Annual Census of Commonwealth Government funded open employment services show that the percentage of women with disabilities being assisted by these services has continued to decline.

 

    • Women with disabilities’ participation rates in the labour market are lower than men with disabilities’ participation rates across all disability levels and types. Women with disabilities are less likely than men with disabilities to receive vocational rehabilitation or entry to labour market programs. Commonwealth Rehabilitation Services statistics for 1994/5 indicate only 35% of referred clients were female with women more likely to be rehabilitated to independent living (45%) than vocational goals (36%).

 

    • Women with disabilities earn less than their male counterparts. 51% of women with a disability earn less than $200 per week compared to 36% of men with a disability. Only 16% of women with a disability earn over $400 per week, compared to 33% of men with a disability.

 

    • There is a higher incidence of incapacity (10.2%) for unemployed females in Australia compared to unemployed males (7.6%). This applies consistently across all age groups. Unemployed females have a one-third greater incidence of incapacity than unemployed males. The higher incidence of incapacity for unemployed females is more pronounced for those under 50 years age, and especially for 30-39 and under 21 year olds.

 

    • Women with disabilities are less likely than their male counterparts to receive a senior secondary and/or tertiary education. Only 16% of all women with disabilities are likely to have any secondary education compared to 28% of men with disabilities.

 

    • Women with disabilities are substantially over-represented in public housing, comprising over 40% of all persons in Australia aged 15-64 in this form of tenure. Women with disabilities are less likely to own their own houses than their male counterparts.

 

    • Women with disabilities pay the highest level of their gross income on housing, yet are in the lowest income earning bracket. Some women with disabilities pay almost 50 per cent of their gross income on housing and housing related costs. Over 20% of women with disabilities living in public housing are dissatisfied with the service they receive from their State or Territory housing authority.

 

    • Women with disabilities spend more of their income on medical care and health related expenses than men with disabilities.

 

    • Women with disabilities have a consistently higher level of unmet need than their male counterparts across all disability levels and types. Women with disabilities are less likely to receive appropriate services than men with equivalent needs or other women. 60% of recipients of disability support services funded under the Commonwealth/State Disability Agreement are men with disabilities.

 

    • Women with disabilities are less likely than women without disabilities to receive appropriate health services, particularly breast and cervical cancer screening programs, bone density testing, menopause and incontinence management. In Australia, 41% of women with disabilities with core activity restriction aged 70-75 have never had a mammogram. Almost 30% of women with disabilities aged 70-75 with core activity restriction have never had a pap smear. Of those women with disabilities aged 70-75 core activity restriction who have had a pap smear, 39% have not had regular pap smears (every 2 years). These figures are likely to be much higher for women with disabilities with different disability types (eg: intellectual, cognitive, psychiatric, deaf/hearing impaired, blind/visually impaired) across all age groups.

 

    • Girls and women with disabilities are more likely to be unlawfully sterilised than their male counterparts. Between 1992-1997 at least 1045 girls with disabilities in Australia have been unlawfully sterilised. Comparisons with other data sources suggest that the true number is much greater, perhaps by a factor of several times.

 

    • Regardless of age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or class, women with disabilities are assaulted, raped and abused at a rate of at least two times greater than non-disabled women. Statistics indicate that 90% of women with intellectual disabilities have been sexually abused. 68% of women with an intellectual disability will be subjected to sexual abuse before they reach 18.

 

    • Women with disabilities are more likely to be institutionalised than their male counterparts.

 

    • Women with disabilities are often forced to live in situations in which they are vulnerable to violence. They are more likely to experience violence at work than other women, men with disabilities or the population as a whole.

 

  • Access to telecommunications is a major area of inequity for women with disabilities in Australia. A national survey in 1999 found that 84% of women with disabilities are restricted in their access to telecommunications. 49% of women with disabilities are restricted by issues of affordability; 76% by poor design of telecommunications equipment; 20% by lack of training; 20% by lack of information; and 18% by discrimination.

(Sources: Anderson 1996; Frohmader 1998; WWDA 1998; WWDA 1999, ABS 1999, ABS 1993, AIHW 1998, AIHW 1999, AIHW 2000, Currie 1996, Brady and Grover 1997, Temby 1997, Cooper and Temby 1997, Horsley 1991, Binstead 1997, Rutnam, Martin-Murray and Smith 1999, Warburton et al 1999).