The National Broadband Network (NBN) company should allow and contribute to co-investment for area-switch technology choice upgrades, and the government should not make changes to the Universal Service Obligation (USO) until there is a voice solution for those living in regional areas served by NBN’s satellite, a committee has recommended.

In the 2018 Regional Telecommunications Review [PDF] tabled on Tuesday night, the independent review committee recommended that NBN adjust its area-switch technology choice program so that it is a financial co-contributor with those wanting to upgrade; be more transparent about planned technology upgrades made to its network and when they will take place; and assign responsibility to a member of its senior executive management to upgrade and improve the fixed-wireless and satellite networks.

According to the committee, NBN’s technology choice program is “not an attractive option for governments or businesses”, with costs ranging from a few thousand to millions of dollars.

“A number of state and local governments are interested in co-contributing to technology upgrades in rural and remote areas. Under NBN Co’s current Technology Choice model, the company appears to charge the applicant the full incremental costs of the technology upgrade where an existing NBN service, such as satellite, is already available in the area,” the report said.

“Given NBN Co’s commitments to upgrading its regional networks, it makes sense to move to a co-investment model that could harness other sources of funding to bring forward scheduled upgrades or to enable unscheduled upgrades in areas that are a priority for the co-investors.”

Back in June, NBN had revealed that after receiving 358 area switch applications since July 2012, it has supplied 90 cost estimates, is building one site, and has just two sites up and running.

Those two sites are MDUs consisting of 300 and 350 premises, respectively, with NBN also having 15 applications “in flight”, which means cost estimates have been supplied without any decision made to either proceed or walk away by the applicant.

As of April 2016, NBN had received revenue of AU$31,300 without GST from application fees, and AU$22,640 without GST from design and quote fees.

In August last year, NBN revealed that one customer in Queensland had paid more than AU$200,000 to have their fixed-wireless connection replaced with full fibre.

The highest figure provided in a quote by August for an individual to switch from fibre-to-the-node (FttN) to fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) was AU$149,937 for a premises in Katoomba, New South Wales — with the quote declined by the applicant.

The independent regional telco committee’s report added that no changes should be made to move from the current USO to the proposed Universal Service Guarantee (USG) until there are voice options provided for those in Sky Muster areas, and that industry be involved in coming up with “new and innovative solutions for providing voice services”.

“The services covered by the Universal Service Guarantee need to meet the legitimate needs of regional, rural, and remote Australians,” the committee wrote.

“For many … Telstra’s fixed voice service is the only connection to the outside world if their internet service is not working. This is particularly the case for Sky Muster customers that do not have mobile coverage. These people want to retain their landline services as they cannot rely on the Sky Muster satellites for voice services, which they were not designed to deliver.

“The committee supports a measured and cautious approach to any changes to the Universal Service Obligation arrangements.”

The government should also commit to a regional telco package for improving both fixed and mobile broadband in “areas of high economic, social, and public safety significance” that are being served predominantly by NBN’s satellite service, the committee recommended, pointing to the likely future launches of 5G mobile services, low-Earth-orbit satellites, and programs similar to AT&T’s AirGig.

The committee also recommended that an independent measuring of NBN’s fixed-wireless and satellite services to better understand what parts of the supply chain are causing customer issues should be put in place, as well as “truth in advertising and reporting” on the quality of services consumers will get during peak times.

The report said existing data limits for NBN satellite services should also be increased, especially the spot beams that are underutilised, and data should be unmetered for access to government sites and other essential services — both of which were done last month.

The government should also undertake an audit on repair times for landline services that are not being fixed in specified customer service guarantee (CSG) timeframes; and the impact of CSG exemptions including mass disruption events, with penalties considered for “excessive” repair timeframes.

Lastly, the committee said an Indigenous Digital Inclusion program should be kicked off in partnership with Indigenous communities; and digital literacy should be increased in remote areas via an online technology hub with information, sending out technical advisers, and getting the agricultural industry to provide advice on Internet of Things (IoT) and digital applications.

The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) welcomed the report, with one of its members having served on the independent committee.

“It is reassuring to see that the independent committee has listened to the voices of country Australia as they’ve spelled out what they need from a modern telco service,” ACCAN CEO Teresa Corbin said.

“We hope that the government will implement these recommendations in a timely manner to help protect communications consumers across the regions.”

The government had announced its three-yearly review of regional telecommunications services back in April, and took into account submissions from industry and stakeholders.

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