USO debate finalised no later than June

The Australian Communications Authority (ACA) expects a final decision on the Universal Service Obligation (USO) will be handed down no later than June 30.

At the earliest, carriers will be issued with the USO Assessment notice for the shared costs in April, but Whitehead said a more likely scenario will see the notice issued in June. Carriers will have 14 days to make the payments.

The USO is a requirement that telephone services are of a "reasonable" standard for customers throughout Australia. The federal government has appointed Telstra as USO provider, but the costs of the service are shared among all the carriers.

Current debate surrounding the issue concerns Telstra's claims that costs of the service amounted to $1.8 billion over 1997-98. The 1996-97 costs were $251.6 million.

Neill Whitehead, ACA's manager for the USO, told Computerworld the ACA is currently reviewing Telstra's $1.8 billion claim and is awaiting industry comment.

Rival carriers Optus and Vodafone, which share in the costs of the service, claim that costs of the USO are closer to $200 million. Optus and Vodafone officials were not available for comment at press time.

"When Telstra lodged its $1.8 billion claim, a lot of people went white. We weren't expecting a number of this magnitude," Whitehead said.

Despite disputes from competing carriers, Telstra maintains its claims take into account the "best technologies for use within the framework that [they] had to estimate the cost of the USO".

Rob Lomdahl, Telstra spokesperson for regulatory and external affairs, said: "We [Telstra] still believe that our original technology choices are appropriate."

Whitehead said a detailed assessment of Telstra's claim, and the new costing model which was adopted for the first time, is under way.

For more details on the USO issue see Computerworld March 5, p20.

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