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Regional comms minister urges satellite industry to step up on USG

Regional communications minister Bridget McKenzie has urged the Australasian satellite industry to tell the federal government how the latest satellite tech could help deliver a reworked universal rural voice and broadband service. Speaking after her keynote address Australasia Satellite Forum hosted by talk Satellite & Commsday, McKenzie also provided more detail on how her new regional telco review will interact with future funding for the mobile blackspots program.

The federal government announced last December that it would replace the current voice-only Universal Service Obligation, which has been criticised as anachronistic in a number of high-proile reviews, with a rebadged Universal Service Guarantee. The USG will mandate voice and broadband availability for 100% of the Australian population, but only after the NBN rollout is completed in 2020.

Much of the detail around the USG, including technological platforms for delivery, has yet to be leshed out pending further consultations and negotiations with industry. The government has also said it will not change current delivery mechanisms without “clear, acceptable and more cost-effective alternatives.”

In this context, McKenzie warned the satellite summit that while “satellite technology may appear to be the obvious solution to bridge [the] voice divide” in regional and remote locations, “current thinking suggests it is not fully viable due to latency and reliability during rainy weather.” “For the time being, these concerns mean [NBN’s] Sky Muster [satellite] is not seen as a platform for voice delivery under the new guarantee,” she said.

“[But] we are still keen to hear more from the satellite sector including any developments that may be able to overcome the challenge of providing affordable and reliable voice services in remote locations… many people in regional, rural and remote Australia are open to technological change but need to be assured that new options will still deliver reliable and affordable voice services,” McKenzie added. “We are aiming to have the new Universal Service Guarantee in place for the completion of the NBN in 2020, so now is the time to be having those conversations.”

“Even if satellite technology is not the immediate solution, it may well prove to be the answer for tomorrow.”

Optus Satellite VP Paul Sheridan said that his irm would be engaging “heavily” with government on the subject. “There’ll be, no doubt, lots of discussion about the decisions that the decision the government is making and how we can either deliver, and/ or get better value for money out of, the USO,” he said.

“There’s the public private partnership model that the government of Indonesia is pursuing with their multifunction satellite; that’s something, if the Australian government decided to pursue it, we would be very keen to be a part of,” added SES Networks APAC VP Imran Malik.

BLACKSPOTS: Speaking to CommsDay on the sidelines of the event, the minister also provided more detail on how the new Regional Telecommunications Review that she recently announced would interact with the future of the mobile blackspots program.

The latest federal Budget does not break out any speciic future funding for the program.

“I won’t know what I want to invest in yet. So why would I be rolling out a program that was developed when we had CDMA, and we’ve got now 870 towers, basestations around the country? We need to look at what that footprint looks like and what should government be investing in,” she said.

“I am 110% committed to making sure we’re connected; I just want to make sure we’re doing it in the best, and right, way. That’s why [we’re] bringing that review [reporting timeframe] forward now, to look at it; is this still the right investment model? There might be other technologies, or other ways we can connect Australians… that’s why [the review committee] has been tasked to look at new and emerging technologies.”

“The investment we’ve already frontloaded inishes at the end of this year, but [the review committee] will be reporting to me in September, so I’ll have the new wave of investment ready to go,” added McKenzie. “That’s the goal.” <> Petroc Wilton and Jessica Taulaga