Good afternoon,

Before I begin, I want to acknowledge that I am on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging..  

This afternoon, there are three areas that I’d like to discuss:

  • The need for reliable and fair communications
  • Consumer issues with Digital Platforms and IOT
  • Media Reform Green Paper

Need for Reliable and Fair Communications

Remote Indigenous Communications Review

For many of us, the past 12 months would look very different without access to a reliable fast broadband service. We’ve worked, studied, and stayed connected online. While the pandemic has in many cases led to rapid digital transformations across the nation, with accelerated take up of digital services such as videoconferencing, cloud technology, and telehealth for those with access and skills, communities that are disconnected have proven to be at a much greater disadvantage.

Indigenous Australians are currently 7.9 points below the national score when it comes to digital inclusion, according to the 2020 Australian Digital Inclusion Index. While the ADII does not capture data from remote Indigenous communities, they acknowledge that the high levels of geographic isolation and socioeconomic disadvantage that these communities experience pose distinct challenges for digital inclusion.  Very few remote Indigenous people have the option of home schooling, working from home, or accessing basic services online.

I have just returned from Lismore yesterday where we held our annual Indigenous Advisory Forum together with the First Nations Media Digital leadership forum.  We heard about some very real impacts of lack of connectivity during COVID that impacted on access to health, education and in one instance an example of youth suicide where the community strongly believe if there was better mobikle coverage at this time it could have saved a life. In many remote communities access to Wi-Fi was restricted to prevent groups congregating and enforce social distancing – very problematic for those whose ONLY connectivity is provided by Wi-Fi. Schooling was disrupted even those with devices struggled to access or afford broadband. Yet even with these barriers stories of resilience have emerged from communitie across this wide brown land. In Wilcannia community radio helped co-ordainte and organise services and voilunteers to help ensure elders had regular meals and kids got out for group exercise while still social distancing. In northern Australia Indigenous Community Television (ICTV) broadcast lessons at 3pm everyday to students who had been sent home form boarding school but did not have a connection. We are also aware of work that many ISPs undertook with communities and initiatives that NBN implemented as well.

Most Remote Indigenous Communities restricted all non-essential movement during the worst of the pandemic due to the high risks associated with COVID infection, increasing the need for remote access to services, including health, education, Centrelink, MyGov, justice, banking and so on. However, with an estimated 30% of remote and very remote Indigenous people without household access to telephones or internet, and many Shire/Council offices, schools and other service centres closed, some essential services were not available to many remote Indigenous people.

ACCAN has been deeply concerned about the inadequacy of existing government programs supporting improved communications infrastructure in remote Indigenous communities (RICs). These communities are among the most disadvantaged and digitally disengaged in the country.

In November 2020, we released a report from Dr Daniel Featherstone, former General Manager of First Nations Media, who undertook a review of programs that support telecommunications and internet access in RICs, and any gaps or outstanding needs identified by community stakeholders. We believe that this is the most comprehensive analysis of its kind ever completed. Dr Featherstone spent months compiling a summary of previous and existing programs for improved communications infrastructure in RICs, including government and private sector initiatives, building upon existing ACCAN research, and consulting with Remote Indigenous communities across the country, from the Pilbara region in Western Australia, to Central Darling region in Central New South Wales.

The Remote Indigenous Communities Review estimates that since 2015 there has been $155 million spent on Indigenous communications nationwide, excluding Mobile Black Spot Program co-investment from telcos. While this is a considerable investment into the connectivity of remote Indigenous communities, there are still substantial gaps in communications services in these communities.

 The research identified that the opportunities for expanded coverage and services provided by mainstream programs dependent on a market model with industry co-investment, such as the Mobile Black Spot Program have now been largely exhausted for remote Indigenous communities due to market failure owing to remoteness, sparse populations and lack of terrestrial backhaul infrastructure. A safety net approach is now needed to ensure a next-level digital divide is not set up between larger and smaller communities, or between service providers and Indigenous households within communities.

The key finding is that, despite the increased availability of infrastructure to remote communities, there are still significant gaps in access and usage of communications technologies due to issues of affordability, lack of last mile delivery or community access facilities, issues with service reliability and congestion, and barriers to engagement with online services. Some communities are also choosing to not accept infrastructure due to concerns around cyber-safety, potential impacts on cultural and social cohesion, and ongoing costs of services and equipment maintenance. Further, the issues identified are not consistent but impacted by local variables of community size, remoteness from regional centres or large industry, existing infrastructure, existing communications ecology, regional coordination or agency support, and efforts by local champions. This points to the need for more targeted and place-based solutions, in partnership with local community organisations, to address the next level of obstacles to digital inclusion.

Recently, the policy focus has moved towards setting a target for digital inclusion within the renewed Closing the Gap framework. However, a key challenge is how to effectively measure and track digital inclusion in remote Indigenous communities, with a lack of reliable and up to date data for remote communities and the current limitations of the Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) in not surveying remote communities. It is hoped that the Closing the Gap target will provide the incentive for government investment in measuring and tracking digital inclusion of remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders, and to implement the Regional Telecommunications Review recommendation to establish a targeted place-based program to address the obstacles. Promisingly, Dr Featherstone suggests that a well-coordinated strategy could help to close the gap in Indigenous digital inclusion in the next 5-10 years.

Politicians and advisors that we have engaged with about the report to date have been overwhelmingly positive. This week Dr Heron Loban, ACCAN Director and a proud Torres Strait Islander woman agreed with other Indigenous representatives to work with ACCAN to establish a steering committee of Indigenous digital leaders to advocate for the urgent funding and introduction of the Indigenous Digital Inclusion Strategy.  They aim to send a delegation of Indigenous representatives to Parliament so that they are able to share their lived experience and speak to the changes they need to ensure First Nations people are not left offline again and can benefit from all the opportunities of being digitally connected.

If you are interested in learning more about the Remote Indigenous Communications Review, the full report is available on our website. If you want to help let us know - we want to engage with industry because we know many of you want to address this inequity too.

Consumer Safeguards Review Part C

It is not just our remote Indigenous communities who need to have their voices heard on fair communications.

Choice and fairness

Customer service is a well-known issue for telco companies, and one that leaves consumers understandably frustrated. The Federal Government has even signified that good customer service remains the exception rather than the rule in telecommunications in their Consumer Safeguards Review, Part C: Choice and Fairness paper, which looks at consumer protections, including customer service responses.

We’ve seen that the telco industry isn’t addressing these customer service and complaints issues on their own, so we’d like to see the ACMA more frequently and extensively audit providers’ customer service and complaints handling arrangements, and hand out higher penalties for non-compliance.

Low Income Research

Another key theme that emerged from our consultations for this paper was the need for an unbiased and independent information and plan comparison tool for phone and internet products and services.

While comparison tools like Finder and WhistleOut have grown in popularity amongst consumers in recent years, they rely on commercial models that very often don’t align with consumers’ incentives, skewing the marketplace.

Thanks to effective marketing, price comparator websites are often the first stop for consumers wanting to explore their options for a range of products and services, including telecommunications. This means that they have enormous power within the markets that they operate within - by slightly tweaking their algorithms, they can prompt mass switches from one supplier to another. These comparator websites know their value to suppliers and charge them accordingly - if you want your product featured at all, it’ll cost you. If you want your product to be one of the top recommendations, be prepared to pay again. This means that for many comparison websites, the most prominent offers are often not the cheapest offers for consumers. The ACCC has won cases against some of the biggest comparison websites on the market, including Compare the Market, Finder, iSelect and Trivago for misleading advertising under Australian Consumer Law.

Our members have expressed overwhelming support for a trusted independent plan comparison tool that would address consumer knowledge gaps and provide accurate and customisable information about the availability and price of various phone and internet services, similar to the Government’s Energy Made Easy website. The Energy Made Easy price comparison tool relies on data provided by energy companies about every plan they offer. Energy companies must develop a Basic Plan Information Document (BPID) and the Detailed Plan Information Document (DPID), which accompany each energy plan on the market. This is submitted to the Australian Energy Regulator for inclusion in the searchable data base. These arrangements could be mirrored in telecommunications. Small changes to Critical Information Summary requirements could bring greater consistency and feed into a telecommunications-specific plan comparison tool.

As an effort to begin filling the void of this independent plan comparison tool, ACCAN has put together a list of telco offers for targeted groups to help them stay connected. This includes offers for Older Australians, university students, Centrelink clients, and those being assisted through telco participating program partners (such as Optus’ Donate Your Data program, and Telstra’s pre-paid phone cards). You can find more information on our website.  

Consumer Issues with Digital Platforms

Comparison websites sadly but a small drop in the ocean of consumer issues when it comes to online services and digital platforms.

Web platforms

The ACCC’s Digital Platforms Inquiry Report on market dynamics and consumer choice screens in search services and web browsers is currently looking into the operation of browsers and general search services in Australia.

Browsers have gained strategic importance in the communications landscape as they have become the gateway to an enormous range of online services both for businesses and consumers. Consumers are more likely to use the browser pre-installed on their devices, particularly consumers for whom switching from defaults is more difficult (seniors, people with disabilities, and those from non-English speaking backgrounds, for example). The ACCC has recognised that customer inertia and the effect of default settings is a barrier to the expansion of smaller search engines - and limits consumer choice.

Consumer harms that can arise from default browser settings (for example, Google) include data collection for the purposes of targeted advertising; potential security and privacy threats posed by insecure storage of data; choice limitation restricted due to result rankings on search engines and limited quality of consumer information available.

It is too early to know the long-term effectiveness of the introduction of choice screens in increasing consumer choice of browsers in Europe. In aggregate across Europe, Google’s market share in the supply of search services has not changed significantly since the introduction of choice screens. In January 2020, Google’s share was estimated to be at 93.88 per cent and by January 2021 it was at 93.11 per cent. DuckDuckGo stated that it was not featured on the choice screen in the third round of auctions for any country in Europe because it was ‘priced out of this auction’. However, the 2009 EU ruling for Microsoft to provide a choice screen is a useful template to indicate long-term impacts on consumer choice preferences.

To facilitate competition and improve consumer choice in the supply of general search services and browsers in Australia, accessible consumer education at the point of selection about the benefits and limitations of the browsers on offer may help. ACCAN also endorses adopting the 'demand side' and 'supply side' interventions recommended by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). These include restricting search engines from acquiring default positions, preventing device manufacturers and browsers from monetising their products through default payments; requiring Google to provide third party search service providers with access to their click and query data; and requiring Google and Bing to provide syndicated search results on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms when syndicating to smaller search engines.

Privacy Act Review

Next, I’d like to quickly touch on the current review of the Privacy Act 1988. The meaning of privacy is constantly evolving, and it is vital that Australian policy privacy settings and laws continue to empower consumers and protect their data. 

Since the Privacy Act was last reviewed, the growth of Internet of Things has exploded in Australia. Research from Telsyte shows that 61 per cent of Australian households having adopted at least one smart home product as of the end of June 2020. Yet the consumer protections around these devices is practically non-existent. We would like to see the Privacy Act amended to introduce a ‘privacy by design’ approach to the manufacturing of devices. When we have pet feeders with built-in cameras, speakers with built-in voice assistants, and many other internet-enabled devices sitting within our homes, we need to know that our privacy is not only being considered but is built-in to the product design. 

Another important concept to be considered is the need to unbundle consumer consent for use of IoT devices. For example, if a family buys a voice activated Alexa device or Google Home, everyone in that household automatically is assumed to have given consent for their preferences to be stored, their data to be collected etc so that the device can predict what assistance they might need. In reality, only one person has given consent and that is the person who set the device up - for example if one family member sets the equipment up they are providing implied consent on behalf of all members of the family, including the children who will begin having their movements and data etc recorded by these devices. This can become an issue in domestic violence situations, where the person controlling the devices have been known to use them for surveillance purposes without the consent or knowledge of other members of the family. 'Unbundling' consent means that each and every person using a shared device such as Alexa or Google Home has given explicit consent to have their data collected, and that each person individually can withdraw that consent when they want to. 

These are a few exampes of recent issues regarding Digital Platforms but ACCAN is increasingly being drawn into a broader range of issues due to the growing impact of convergence on consumers. Other recent examples include the debate about Whats Apps changes to its terms and conditions and the Facebook Newsban which impacted extensively on charities, NGOs and small businesses with no other web presence.

Media Reform Green Paper

Finally, this afternoon, as many of you in this room would be aware, the Government is currently consulting on the future of media in Australia with the Media Reform Green Paper and are inviting stakeholders to share their thoughts on the future of traditional television, subscription services and online news.

With the expansion in dependency on data services and roll-out of 5G Mobile, the government is also looking at how they manage the limited spectrum used for telecommunications and broadcasting.

The restack of spectrum proposed in the Government’s Media Reform Green Paper, which would reallocate ‘spare’ spectrum on 5G networks could improve telecommunications in poorly served, regional and remote areas. However, this should not be implemented if it is to compromise the quality or range of broadcasting channels currently available to people living in regional, rural or remote areas.

Merging television channels to free up more available spectrum may force ABC and SBS to share multiplexes, which could affect NITV, ABC Kids in regional and remote areas and compromise the accessibility of cultural content to children and Indigenous people living in these areas.

Phasing out traditional television will mean that consumers are forced to watch pay per view and SVOD or will lose access to important cultural events. For consumers to continue to have access to SVOD content if traditional TV is phased out, they will need to ensure ongoing compatibility of their home technology. This will mean additional, and in some cases prohibitive, costs are incurred by consumers of new technology in order to continue to enjoy broadcasting services. Older consumers will be forced to adopt or upgrade to new technology they often can’t afford and will have difficultly installing.

Local content quotas and requirements for streaming platforms to invest in minimum quotas of local content will also be essential, especially for regional and remote communities. Additionally, Audio Description and captioning is needed across all programs and channels to ensure that content is accessible for people with disabilities.

To help break down the Paper’s proposals and what they would mean for Australian consumers, ACCAN is hosting a virtual forum on the 11th of May with keynote speaker Professor Jock Given from Swinburne University, and panellists from key interest groups representing culturally diverse communities, regional Australians, Indigenous communities, and Older Australians. Details of the webinar and how to register are on our website. Registrations are now open on our website for any interested parties.

In closing, if the past 12 months have shown us anything, it's that the communications industry is ever-expanding beyond what was traditionally understood to be in the realm of telco, and as such – so are the consumer issues. As the communications industry evolves to include over-the-top services and emerging technologies, we need to ensure that consumers have a voice and are heard at every step of the process – from ‘privacy by design’ product development to keeping Australians safe online through regulation. At ACCAN, consumers continue to be at the heart of everything we do – we hope that you’ll join us in this mission.

Thank you.

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