A buyout of Southern Phone by energy giant AGL should avoid losing the company's community-first culture, the nation's leading telco consumer advocate said.
The 35 local councils - including Wollongong, Shellharbour and Kiama - which equally own Southern Phone will soon consider a takeover bid from energy giant AGL, which wants to diversify into phone and internet retailing.
The company has been run since 2002 with a priority of serving community needs and returning dividends to councils. For the 2017-18 financial year, Wollongong received a dividend of about $91,000; Shellharbour $41,000, Kiama about $23,000.
But the potential buyout by a corporate giant, and the changes needed to the company's constitution, raise concerns over whether these values would continue.
Teresa Corbin, CEO of the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), said Southern Phone's shareholding structure had culture which focused on communities.
"Southern Phone's ownership by local councils has enabled it to build a community-focused culture with products that meet the specialised needs [of] regional communities," she said.
"We would hope that any change in ownership would not change this culture and leave Southern Phone's customers worse off."
Southern Phone managing director David Joss has said AGL was "committed to maintaining the Southern Phone brand and products, as well as the existing business operations and telecommunications services to our 100,000 customers, across regional Australia".
"Importantly, AGL will continue to retain the Southern Phone team," he said.
Ms Corbin said the statements did not amount to an actual guarantee of service levels.
"In their earlier statement, we saw that AGL recognised telecommunications as an essential service," she said. "This is an important acknowledgement, however does not guarantee any kind of service levels for consumers.
"If customer service levels were to dramatically drop, many of the telco's customers are likely to start thinking about what other providers are available to them.
"One of our main concerns is that Southern Phone customers are appropriately kept in the loop about any changes and how they might be affected. We look forward to discussing this with Southern Phone and AGL further, should the purchase offer go ahead."
Correction: A previous version of this story said the councils received their dividend for the 2018-19 financial year. The payment was for the previous year but received during FY18-19.