Monday, February 16, 2009

Disability Equipment Program

In a speech today Senator Conroy has advised that he is conducting study into a single comprehensive telecommunications equipment program for people with disabilities. He said;

Therefore, the Government will now undertake a feasibility study into whether a disability equipment program—independent of telecommunications carriers—should be established. The Department has already done some preliminary scoping work for the study. It will involve a detailed market analysis of the current arrangements for providing equipment to eligible people with disabilities.

The study will assess the estimated demand for specialised equipment over the next 10 years, and what eligibility criteria might apply to accessing that equipment at subsidised rates. It will also include a technology analysis of what sort of equipment might be required, and whether some equipment not currently available in Australia, should be made available. An analysis of projected operational costs and funding options will also be undertaken. I have asked my Department to ensure that there is comprehensive public consultation.

Not before time, I say. Disability and consumer groups have long lobbied for one program. However, first Telstra and then Optus developed their own programs. The consequence of this has been that there is not enough volume in the whole rest of the industry for anything significant.

At last Senator Conroy has realised that there are aspects of the current marketplace that mean "requesting" industry programs won't work. However, it is also to be hoped that he and his Department don't go the reverse and try to actually BE the single program. "Industry" can do this well, once the large players realise they get no credit for doing programs on their own.

(A related but inconsequential issue has been a long running presumption that the USO levy funds the disability program that Telstra runs and so everyone should benefit. Telstra simply argues that the USO levy is so short of costs it doesn't cover everything. The solution, of course, is quite simply to separately ear-mark the money. And while industry might argue about who should fund this, the Disability Discrimination Act would requuire tecos to pay for it themselves.

In fact the whole area is a case study on how we've got the regime wrong. If we didn't mention disability in the telecommunications act at all, then each provider would be required to make arrangements for a disability equipment program. Clearly Telstra's market power enables it to conduct a program more cheaply than anyone else. In an effective market structuring regime a regulator would be able to instruct Telstra to make its scheme available to others - an access regime to the equipmet program. But we don't have that - let's hope that the Departmental enquiry gets us somewhere close).

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