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Switching off the copper network

Labour communications spokesperson Clare Curran wants a discussion on the switch-off date for New Zealand’s copper phone network.

Her call comes one year to the day after I first wrote about a copper network shutdown. I also wrote about ripping out copper in February 2014.

A year ago Ovum’s Australia-based research director David Kennedy said:

Tensions in the New Zealand telecommunications policy framework will persist as long as New Zealand has two access networks, FTTN and UFB, operating in parallel.

Once an area has fibre it doesn’t make economic sense to keep the copper in the ground. Running two parallel access networks is costly and inefficient. There’s no engineering reason to have copper running alongside fibre.

Setting a date makes sense on many levels. Not least it would short-circuit the regulatory angst over the copper access price.

A copper shutdown would give Chorus shareholders and those investing in telecommunications services more certainty. It would allow the industry to focus on the future instead of wrangling over squeezing the last few dollars out of our telecommunications past.

Copper network grumbling

As Curran says, New Zealand managed the move from analogue to digital broadcasting with little pain. That’s not entirely true, there was grumbling. There’s always grumbling.

The main danger with closing the copper network is political. Some older, small-c conservatives think they don’t want government or anyone else to mess with their dial tone. Fixing that is just a matter of doing a better communications job.

Even so, fear of a grass roots revolt could explain why there’s been no widespread discussion to date.

One possibility is there’s a private opinion poll or focus group somewhere in the background telling communications minister Amy Adams to hold back.

Another possibility is that the government was hanging on to the option of announcing a copper network shutdown if wrangling over Commerce Commission rulings, Chorus and the fibre build became a political hot potato once more. Keeping a few cards up your sleeve is smart politics, especially when they don’t cost the taxpayer anything.

It can’t be a complete network close down; some parts of New Zealand aren’t yet scheduled to get fibre. And copper doesn’t have to be ripped out the moment an area gets fibre, people should be given six months or so to prepare.

A side effect of setting a date to shut down fibre is that it highlights the question of when to run fibre to the 20 percent or so of the country not covered by the UFB project. Some areas will never get fibre, but part of the shutdown discussion could include a timetable for delivering fibre to smaller communities.

Labour’s Clare Curran says it’s time to get on with the job.

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