Universal Service?

Telecommunications Policy In Australia and People with Disabilities

By Michael J Bourk

Edited by Tom Worthington.


This work analyses the development of telecommunications universal service in relation to people with disabilities and national policy making in Australia from 1975 to the end of 1997. This is done to gain an understanding of how different political, scientific and social contexts have influenced policy. Changing technological, economic and legislative environments, have created favourable conditions for either charity or ‘rights' models of disability, and have dominated related policy arenas at various times.

A key focus of this study is the consideration given by policy makers to the interests of people with a disability in the continuing debate on access and equity issues in relation to telecommunications services for all Australians. A turning-point in telecommunications policy for people with disabilities occurred in 1995, when various people with a disability made a successful complaint against Telstra to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC). The outcome forced a major change of policy in telecommunications service delivery and benefited many who have disabilities.

The HREOC inquiry is a useful case study which indicates the significance of the mutually constitutive effect on policy stemming from the dynamic interaction of social symbolic environments and material conditions. The work revealed that policy in this area may be described as a pluralist, non-linear process. Government and Telstra policy makers have found telecommunications policy a problematic area to reconcile with universal service obligations.

In June 1995, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's (HREOC) decision in Scott and Disabled Peoples' International (Australia) (DPI (A)) v Telstra found that Telstra discriminated against profoundly deaf people because it did not provide teletypewriters[1] (TTYs) on the same basis it provides standard telephones (HREOC, 1995).

In awarding its decision HREOC referred to Telecom's Universal Service Obligation which is the requirement:

  1. to ensure that the standard telephone service is reasonably accessible to all people in Australia on an equitable basis, wherever they reside or carry on business; and
  2. to supply the standard telephone service to people in Australia;... (s288, Telecommunications Act, 1991)

The case revealed significant differences in interpretation between Telstra and members of the community as to what constituted the Universal Service Obligation (USO). From the inquiry summary (HREOC, 1995), it appears that Telstra believed that its obligation was restricted to the supply of technical equipment within geographic boundaries. This is because, the USO is framed around an internal funding scheme whereby lucrative urban markets cross-subsidise less attractive rural markets. The cross-subsidy arrangement historically provided a useful funding mechanism for setting up the national telecommunications network and distributing costs across the network (See Rheinecke and Schultz, 1983; Barr, 1985).

In contrast Scott, and the other complainant against Telstra in the HREOC inquiry, Disabled Peoples' International (Australia) (DPI (A)), perceived that the obligation extended beyond technical and geographical barriers. The complainants challenged the notion that the USO related solely to the supply of a cross-subsidised telephone to rural areas. They argued that the equipment was only the means of access to a service intended for all Australians. If the provision of the service required other than standard telephone equipment, that too should be supplied. HREOC upheld their interpretation and found Telstra's fundamental proposition, that the only services the telecommunications corporation provides consists of standard products, was flawed.

According to HREOC:

The stand taken by the respondent (Telstra) reflects a grave misunderstanding of its responsibilities under both the DDA (Disability Discrimination Act, 1992) and the Telecommunications Act. I cannot think it would deliberately disregard the plainly expressed intentions of the legislature (HREOC, 1995, 15-16).
It required the focus and legislative power provided by the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA, 1992) to reveal what HREOC perceived as a ``grave misunderstanding'' by Telstra of its role as a service provider to the Australian public. The decision by HREOC also indicates that the discrimination legislation made it quite clear what that role entailed. It may seem surprising that Telstra had such a different interpretation of the nature of its universal service obligation. However, some of the reasons for this become evident if one considers the historical development of telecommunications policy in Australia and the contexts within which policy has been formed.

Senate debates since Federation in 1901, reveal that telecommunications legislators implied a social access and equity dimension in the role of the state owned monopoly, the General Post Office. The General Post Office (GPO), responsible for telecommunications and postal areas, was a provider of services to the public and not just equipment (See Wilson and Goggin, 1995; Davies, 1990; Moyal, 1984). However definitions of key concepts such as ‘universal' and ‘service', are interpreted within contexts which shape their meaning over time. Words which by their nature are conceptual are also problematic. Such words with embedded concepts involve ideas and values with meaning that can not be derived from solely consulting a dictionary (Williams, 1983, 17). Their meaning is in a constant state of flux as societies change over time. These words are politicised by the context in which they are used (See Williams, 1983; Fulcher, 1989; Van Dijk, 1991). Telecommunications policy in Australia has been shaped in various contexts. This study focuses on three areas considered to be central to its historical development- political, scientific and social.

Disability is another problematic concept and highly politicised word (Fulcher, 1989). Part of Telstra's defence against the claim of discrimination in Scott and DPI (A) v Telstra involved the corporation making reference to the voluntary assistance program that it had instituted for the benefit of people with disabilities. While HREOC lauded their generosity it pointed out that it was irrelevant to the claim of discrimination. Telstra's reference to its altruistic activities, based on a belief that charity had relevance to the case, reveals an insight into the way people with disabilities have been socially constructed in society. The social perception of disability also has political implications (Fulcher, 1989). Historically, people with disabilities have been socially constructed by medical and charity discourses which stress dependency, helplessness and their need to be provided for (Fulcher, 1989, 26). In contrast, the rights discourse stresses independence and the rights and responsibilities of people with disabilities as citizens in society (Fulcher, 1989, 27). A system of equality, not charity, is the goal. Consequently, it is argued that Telstra anachronistically applied traditional values to people with disabilities.

Three periods characterise telecommunications policy for people with disabilities between 1975-1997. The most significant policy moment for people with disabilities in telecommunications was a HREOC Inquiry that came to be known as the ``Scott Decision'' (See Alston, 1996; Review of the Standard Telephone Service (RSTS), 1996). Within the twenty two year period various events can be perceived as either directly or indirectly influencing policy. Each are discussed in the following chapters.

This work will explore the way people with disabilities have been socially constructed and the way current disability discrimination policies (DDA, 1992) are challenging societal views and influencing telecommunications policy. The Disability Discrimination Act (1992) had been in force for two years before the Scott and DPI(A) v Telstra case. However the DDA(1992) had not influenced Telstra to review its interpretation of its own policy or examine the implications of the new anti-discrimination policy. The fact did not go unnoticed by HREOC:

...Yet apparently no officer of the respondent (Telstra) thought to draw the attention of the new Manager of the Disability Services Unit, appointed in July 1993, just three or four months after the DDA came into operation, to the significance of the legislative history. (HREOC, 1995, 16).

The above case study is an appropriate introduction to this telecommunications policy analysis. Scott and DPI(A) v Telstra raises important issues which explore the cultural territory surrounding Telecom as an institution, telecommunications policy and its contexts, people with disabilities, and the dynamic and political nature of key policy terms. Major questions this work addresses are:

Chronology of Significant Events in Policy 1978 - 1997
Key DatesSignificant Events
1978Telecom formed a dedicated unit for people with disabilities
1981International Year of Disabled Persons (IYDP) - Telecom introduced a range of specialised products and media raised community awareness of disability
1981Telecom Australia published,Disabled People and Telecommunications -the first Australian research undertaken to investigate the needs of people with disabilities and telecommunications services
1981Disabled Peoples' International (Australia) established as a peak representative body for people with disabilities
1983Labour elected - Dr. Don Grimes becomes Minister for Social Security and begins nationwide review of disability models and services
1986Disability Services Act - radical move in the rhetoric towards consumer rights and involvement (pers. comms. PNFBCA, 1997)
1988Telecom Australia Consumer Council (TACC) established
1988Telecom formed Disabilities Program Unit within its corporate structure responsible for forming dedicated policy for people with disabilities.
1989Telecom Australia Consumer Council (TACC) established after twelve months preparation by Australian Federation of Consumer Organisations (AFCO) and Telecom
1989Consumer Telecommunications Network (CTN) established by (AFCO) and Telecom
1989Australian Associations for the Deaf (AAD) joins CTN
1991Disability Services Consultative Committee formed - a working forum established by TACC
1991Telecommunications for People with Disabilitiescommonly known as ‘The Red Book'' (internal Telecom research report on disability and telecommunications issues) was released by the disability service manager
1992Disability Discrimination Act - Legislative force for the rights of people with disabilities- a significant moment in terms of access and equity opportunity
1993Geoff Scott places an individual complaint against Telecom alleging discrimination
1993Pilot investigation of costs to establish a voluntary National Relay Service (NRS ) based on models of existing regional services in SA and NSW. The project recommended NRS to be established.
1993Disabled Peoples' International registered a class-action complaint against Telstra with HREOC alleging discrimination of services
1994AAD lobbied Canberra over delay in funding for NRS with TTY/Fax phone-in
1995TACC (Telecom Australia Consumer Council) changed name to Telstra Consumer Council (TCC)
1995Labor Govt. budgeted $26.1 million for NRS
1995 - MarchScott and DPI v Telstra hearing in HREOC
1995 - JuneHREOC rules in favour of Scott and DPI against Telstra which was found guilty of Indirect Discrimination -Telstra is given 21 days to appeal
1995Telstra considers taking action to the High Court thus challenging HREOC's power
1995 - Sept.Telstra accepts HREOC's finding
1995National Relay Service (NRS) established by Govt. direct subsidy
1996Telstra releases Disability Services Policy 005 071 which ensures all products and services will comply with DDA (1992) within reason
1996 -Dec.Telstra releases Disability Action Plan
1997 -Jul.Telecommunications Act 1997

Further Information

Copyright © Michael J Bourk & Tom Worthington 2000.