Restart the Regional Communications Fund: ACCAN

The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network wants the new federal government to reinstate the Area-Focused Communications Fund, in part in response to estimates that around 900,000 households have no home internet connection.

Almost two years after former Communications Minister Paul Fletcher declared that the National Broadband Network (NBN) was “built and fully operational”, the Australian Communications Action Network says now is the time to address barriers to connectivity.

Among the 23 recommendations presented in its policy paper on the future of broadband, the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network called for a broadband subsidy for low-income households. ACCAN chief executive Andrew Williams said lockdowns, natural disasters and significant increases in the cost of living over the past two years have underscored the importance of communications technology.

“Experiences like these have highlighted how essential communications technologies are and how important it is that these technologies are reliable, resilient and affordable. According to our research, 57% of low-income Australians find it difficult to pay for home broadband services. This is unacceptable in a country as wealthy as ours,” Mr Williams said.

“To ensure that the interests of all Australian consumers are protected, a number of conditions must be met on all fixed broadband networks to ensure that everyone can connect and stay connected, not just those who can afford to pay. ”

The recommendations to the federal government are based on 10 broader conditions. ACCAN calls for these conditions to be met for all fixed broadband networks, not just NBN.

The 10 conditions that ACCAN urges the government to respect are:

  • Broadband networks are secure, reliable and resilient
  • Regulatory compliance is transparent
  • Communications are affordable and measures promote access for all consumers
  • Priority broadband support agreements are available
  • Broadband access is equitable
  • Social inclusion is supported by universal digital inclusion
  • Consumers are helped to make appropriate choices
  • Small business needs are catered for
  • Consumers are treated fairly
  • Consumer protections are properly enforced

Among its calls for funding several initiatives and upgrades, ACCAN called for the re-establishment of a region-focused communications fund to implement the recommendations of regional telecommunications reviews undertaken every three years.

The representative body proposes that it be funded by a portion of spectrum auction revenues and funds from the sale of NBN. ACCAN says this will “eliminate the need for ad hoc program funding to be found in general revenue for recurring programs”.

The $2 billion fund was originally created in 2005 under the Howard government. It was abolished in the Rudd government’s 2008–09 budget in favor of the $4.7 billion Nation Building Fund, which included $60 million to fund 350 additional projects under the Black Spots grant program.

ACCAN is also calling for the Open Telecommunications program, which uses the consumer’s right to data, to include a free and accessible price comparison tool for telecommunications products and services.

Another of the recommendations is to establish a long-term secure funding mechanism to continue providing accessible telecommunications service, which is a guide to helping people with disabilities navigate relevant telecommunications products.

There is also a call for federal funding for continuing education and technical support for people with disabilities, remote Indigenous communities, people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities, newly arrived migrants, and regional, rural and remote consumers.

ACCAN’s estimate for the number of households without internet access was calculated using the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s (ACMA) 2021 report “How We Use the Internet” and census data released last week. In the ACMA report, a survey conducted in the six months to June 2021 suggested that 9.55% of Australian households did not have internet access at home.

Ahead of its victory in the 2022 federal election, Labor has pledged it will commit $650 million to improving regional telecommunications infrastructure. This included $200 million for grants under the existing regional connectivity program. It would also include $400 million to improve multi-carrier mobile coverage along roads, and in homes and businesses across the region.

The Morrison government earmarked $480 million in its final budget earlier this year for upgrades to improve NBN’s regional infrastructure.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley by email.

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