ACS joins USO debate with claims Australia's digital divide is deepening

Arnhem Land communities rely on mobile phones for voice, video and online banking.

The Australian Computer Society (ACS) today called on the government to broaden the terms of the Universal Service Obligation (USO) as part of its current review of Australia's telecommunications service standards.

The USO is designed to provide regulatory requirements to ensure that all Australians have access to basic telephone services and payphones.

As part of its submission to the USO review, the ACS said it wants to work with Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA) to ensure the review process results in a more contemporary and relevant document capable of helping to reverse the "digital divide.

This includes reviewing the way mobile communications is developing as a universal information platform with significant potential for remote Internet access.

Regardless of which political party wins the federal election on November 24, 2007, ACS telecommunications board director, Professor Reg Coutts, said Australia needs a USO for the 21st century that encompasses broadband and mobile technologies.

"Australia faces a growing digital divide, which is being exacerbated by the huge disparity between the quality of telecommunications services provided in our cities and those available in rural and remote parts of the country," Coutts said.

"The USO was written at a time when a standard fixed line service was all anyone needed, but times have changed. With the DCITA due to review submissions on this issue during November, the ACS believes it's time to expand the USO in recognition of the fact that Australians today need voice communications, e-mail and online access to services in order to play their part in society."

Coutts called for a commitment from both sides of politics to provide access to 100Mbit/s from the broadband infrastructure plans announced during the campaign.

He said another priority for the elected government is the need to address ICT skills development, which is deepening the digital divide.

According to the latest ACS online survey of its members, broadband is the number one ICT election issue for 49.45 per cent of respondents, followed by skills & education (31.46 per cent) and the need for a National ICT Strategy (9.08 per cent).

Coutts said to deliver high speed broadband to all Australians requires greater collaboration between government and industry to make sure optical, wireless and mobile technologies are included in the strategy.

"We urgently need the government to allocate appropriate spectrum for wireless broadband since this is an essential element of any plan to deliver broadband services to the bush," he said.

"Unfortunately, the debate over Telstra's privatisation delayed any meaningful action on broadband for several years and this issue must be addressed in the next six to 12 months if we are to maintain our global competitiveness."

Professor Coutts pointed to the proliferation of Internet applications being created for mobile phones, and the innovative way mobile technology is being applied overseas to provide communication services to remote communities.

He cited GrameenPhone in Bangladesh which is providing mobile phones to remote communities as one example.

"Mobile phones in comparison to fixed lines are more appropriate for those living in remote communities in the Northern Territory. This is because of unreliable service and the social pressure to make fixed lines available to other members of the community," he said.

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