It’s time to upgrade Australia for better universal service

Times are changing, and so is technology. We think the Universal Service Obligation (USO) for fixed voice services should change as well, so you get improved voice services, no matter where you live.
Loretta Willaton · 08 May 2024 · 7 minute read

Times are changing, and so is technology:

Alongside all this change, the government is reviewing the Universal Service Obligation legislation, and it couldn't be more timely.

What is the Universal Service Obligation (USO)?

Australia's Universal Service Obligation (USO) is a longstanding policy that plays a vital role in guaranteeing equitable access to basic phone services.

This policy ensures that regardless of where you live and work in Australia, even in remote and sparsely populated areas, you have a reliable way to connect to essential voice services and the wider world.

We currently fulfill this obligation by providing a mix of phone service technology. We also provide and maintain a network of payphones around Australia that can make free local, national and mobile calls.

It's an important mission, and one we are contracted to deliver on behalf of the government, to make sure all Australians have access to a phone service wherever they live. The industry and the Government fund the obligation, and we are by far the largest contributor.

The USO has been instrumental in ensuring Australia's communities can stay connected with standard telephone services (STS). We want to keep up this important work with the help of the right technology for the job.

Why it's time to change

Making sure that the humble home phone in your kitchen, hallway or office has a dial tone when you pick it up takes a lot of work.

Right now, the network that provides these basic standard telephone services (STS) to Australians in some areas relies on old copper and radio technology. It's a dinosaur compared to what's available today. They're so old that some of the technology required is no longer being manufactured, and we’re having to recycle and refurbish old parts to keep it going.

We think it's time for the USO to be met through a range of technologies, reflecting advances in modern, 21st-century technology advancements that improve customer experiences.  

We’re talking about 21st century technology like:

  • Fibre and/or fixed wireless, currently being used to deliver the national broadband network, for example;

  • Mobile phones on our massive mobile network, and

  • New Low Earth Orbit satellite (LEOSAT) technology like Starlink (along with existing geostationary satellite services), with low latency and high speeds needed to carry voice connectivity to people in areas that cables can’t.

How will modern tech be better?

By updating the USO we'll be giving Aussies access to better technology options to help them thrive.

Services based on satellite connectivity, for example, can be deployed into hard-to-reach areas faster, without the need for lengthy, complicated and high cost deployments. That means more Australians can have a reliable universal telephony service even faster.

Additionally, new and more reliable technology can open up opportunities for business and economic growth in remote areas. And importantly, it makes sure that those living in remote communities don't become isolated from all-important human contact.

And all done faster and more cost-effectively than it would be over ancient copper cables. 

Is it possible to achieve universal coverage with mobile phones instead?

It’s a good question, and one we get asked a lot. 

After all, mobiles are far more convenient to bring around with you than a landline connected to your home or business!

Mobile connectivity has made big strides in connecting Australia, and can certainly help meet the connectivity needs of people in regional Australia, But it can’t single handedly fulfill the requirements set out by the Universal Service Obligation. 

While 99.6% of Australians having access to at least one mobile network, limitations persist, especially in regional and remote areas. Despite investments through programs like the Mobile Black Spot Program and others, only about one-third of Australia's vast land mass is currently covered by existing mobile networks.

Expanding mobile connectivity to meet the USO's standards across 100% of Australia's territory is just not technically or financially feasible, especially when LEO satellite technology already offers vastly superior coverage benefits for rural and regional Australians. Challenges including how far mobile signal can travel; how it could (or couldn’t) penetrate buildings for indoor coverage, and how expensive it would be to cover very remote areas.

For these reasons (and more), a USO provided via mobile services isn’t practical or achievable in the existing framework. Instead, we need a multi-technology approach that uses the best tools for the job at hand. That includes a mix of fixed, wireless and technology on the horizon like direct-to-handset satellite services 

What happens next?

The government is currently considering the future of the USO, and we welcome the opportunity to share our views and hear from others. The time for change is now.

Reforming the USO to focus on modern technologies is essential to ensuring all Australians have access to reliable phone services.

By embracing advancements and prioritising consumer safeguards, this reform will empower regional communities and pave the way for a more reliably connected and inclusive future for all Australians.


By Loretta Willaton

Regional Australia Executive and Regional Customer Advocate

Loretta is the Regional Australia Executive at Telstra. Before this role she worked as an Area General Manager with a demonstrated history of working in the telecommunications industry.