Residents in half a dozen Tasmanian communities have only three and a half months to connect to the National Broadband Network before the copper network in their area is switched off, potentially leaving them without voice services.
Residents of Deloraine, George Town, Kingston Beach, Sorell, St Helens and Triabunna need to connect to the NBN by 23 May if they want access to fixed line voice or Internet services.
At a Hobart hearing of the Senate inquiry into the NBN held earlier this week, representatives of both the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and consumer advocacy group Digital Tasmania expressed concerns that some households and businesses were unprepared for the switchover.
"Some areas, such as Kingston Beach, have NBN take-up as high as 70 per cent," Digital Tasmania spokesperson John Dalton told the Senate NBN committee. "Others, for example, St Helens, have take-up of only about 30 per cent.
"It is difficult to get exact figures on rollout status at the level of individual FSAMs [Fibre Servicing Area Module — an area covered by a loop of fibre] or individual towns, but our estimate is that across those six towns approximately 50 per cent of premises do not yet have an active NBN connection. That means that about 4000 premises that have 16 weeks to connect before the cut-off date."
Dalton said there have been reports with delays hooking some premises up to the NBN "due to shared building issues, landlord reluctance, heritage issues, access to power poles and contractors missing appointments". He said the 23 May switch-off date is "unrealistic" in the view of Digital Tasmania and "if a significant proportion of these communities are disconnected, likely to damage public perception of the rollout process".
The CEO of the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Michael Bailey, told the hearing that delays in hooking up businesses in the state, including the Chamber, had made his organisation concerned about the switch-off deadline.
"[C]ertainly in some of our regional areas there is concern about copper being removed and what that will mean to [businesses'] access to things like security systems and faxes and so forth," he said.
Australian Communications Consumer Action Network CEO Teresa Corbin said it was concerning that residents may be unaware of the switchover deadline or how to ensure they have access to ongoing telecommunications services.
"There have also been reports of missed appointments, multiple technician visits and long waiting times," the ACCAN CEO said.
"It’s also concerning that we still don’t know how many apartments [multi-dwelling units] within the switchover areas haven’t been connected to the NBN yet," the CEO said.
However she added that ACCAN's understanding "is that if someone has put in an order for an NBN service, they shouldn’t be disconnected from their current service until they have their NBN service up and running."
ACCAN has approached NBN Co seeking information on progress in the migration of people away from the copper network in areas where NBN services are available. The organisation "will also be engaging with TUSMA", Corbin said.
TUSMA — the Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency — is the government organisation established in July 2012 to oversee the Universal Service Obligation that ensures all Australians have access to telephone services.
The organisation has been working with Retail Service Providers (the NBN's equivalent of ISPs) to inform residents in NBN-connected area about the transition away from the copper network.
"TUSMA (through contractual arrangements with Retail Service Providers) is contacting customers with a voice-only service who are still connected to the copper network 6 months before disconnection in their area," TUSMA Acting CEO, Kelly Mudford, said.
"Communications to customers in the first 15 regions went out in December and priority assistance customers still connected to the copper network should have received a follow-up telephone contact in January."
A second round will take place in March for customers still connected to the copper network.
"The number of voice-only customers in these regions will continue to be closely monitored as the May disconnection date approaches," Mudford said.
NBN Co is continuing to work to raise awareness of the 23 May deadline, a spokesperson for the organisation said.
"NBN Co has been working with a variety of stakeholders to ensure local residents and businesses are aware and have the necessary information needed ahead of migration to the NBN. Such activities include local advertising, community information sessions and door knocking," the spokesperson said.
"NBN Co also continues to work with a variety of stakeholders including telephone and internet service providers, community groups, local Council and advocacy groups to ensure the message is reaching the local community."