web analytics

EQT Infrastructure’s A$3.3 billion takeover bid for Vocus Communications could see a new owner for the New Zealand business.

Vocus Group New Zealand includes the Orcon, Slingshot and CallPlus brands along with other assets. It is the third largest telco behind Spark and Vodafone.

The potential buyer, EQT Infrastructure, is a Swedish private equity investor.

Vocus commands good price

EQT’s bid, which became public on Monday, put a 35 percent premium on Vocus Communications’ trading price at the time.

Insiders say the bid is likely to succeed. Although there are other potential bidders waiting in the wings should EQT’s offer fall through. Either way, Vocus is likely to find a new owner soon.

The EQT bid comes only days after Infratil and Brookfield’s successful bid for Vodafone New Zealand. It suggests other telco sector mergers and acquisitions could be on the way.

This is not the first time investors have attempted to buy Vocus Communications. In 2017, private equity firms Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Affinity Equity Partners, made a bid for the company. That was later withdrawn.

According to the Australian Financial Review, the key to renewed interest in the business is Vocus’s fibre assets.

Fibre infrastructure

Infrastructure is an increasingly popular investment class. The returns are relatively high and, in many cases, it faces little direct competition. Fibre assets of particular interest to infrastructure investors at present, they feel that its owners don’t always maximise its value.

The Australian Financial Review goes on to report it’s likely the buy will sell Vocus Communications’s retail business.

Presumably, this would also include Vocus’s New Zealand retail brands.

Vocus has New Zealand local fibre assets. It picked them up from the former FX Networks business now wrapped into the Vocus Group.

One interesting angle is that after 2022 regulated UFB wholesale prices will be based on network asset values. If fibre becomes a sought after asset for investors, that could put pressure on the regulated price.

Telecommunications contracts

Once again telecommunications is New Zealand’s most complained about industry. It’s a story we’ve heard over and over. The latest report is MBIE’s New Zealand Consumer Survey 2018.

Almost one in three people buying a home service experienced a problem. That’s according to According to the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment.

The most common problem, almost half, is that the product or service didn’t work as expected.

home based telecommunications problems

Fixed line, mobile complaints

It’s not only fixed line home services. One in five consumers buying a mobile service had a problem in 2018.

Even allowing for overlap between the two categories, this is a lot of people. The odds are close to even that you, the reader, are among them. The chance that you know a person who had trouble is close to certainty.

Part of the problem is that telecommunications touches everyone.
MBIE says almost two-thirds, 62 percent, of consumers bought a home service in the last two years.

Even so, the category is a long way ahead of building repairs, the next most complained about sector.

Over a quarter of people surveyed say their most recent consumer problem was with telecommunications.

That’s bad. It’s diabolical. But it gets worse. MBIE goes on to say the poorest New Zealanders get a worse deal from the industry’s bad customer service. These are often the people least equipped to deal with poor service.

It adds up to another digital divide. This one looks harder to fix than lack of access. Sorting this out could do much to improve poor New Zealanders’s telecoms experience.

Telecommunications Forum CEO Geoff Thorn defends the industry. He says the sector has been working hard to improve customer satisfaction.

“We know that New Zealand consumers have access to world-class telecommunications services when measured by coverage, speed and price. However, we recognise there are areas where the telecommunications industry can improve”, Thorn says.

That’s fair enough. Although it’s unlikely outsourcing customer support to an Indian company will improve matters. Vodafone already always ranks last in surveys comparing telco performance.

New service quality regime coming

Meanwhile the TCF is working with the Commerce Commission on a new service quality regime. The two plan to develop this in the next few months.

Thorn has a point when he says the poor showing in the report: “…is not surprising given the number of connections and associated transactions people have, and that, in the case of fibre, it is new infrastructure that is being rolled out across the country.”

One area the TCF could investigate is how New Zealand compares with other countries. A quick, unscientific online search shows telecoms where there are comparable statistics.

It’s possible companies don’t set realistic customer expectations. Consumer magazine runs frequent comparisons of local company support. It’s no accident that the firms that do best are those who promise next to no support.

fibre-optics

On Thursday Chorus released its proposed unbundled fibre pricing for industry feedback. Would-be unbundlers responded with a noise resembling what you might hear when placing an electric guitar in front of an amplifier: a loud howl.

This was always going to happen.

New Zealand’s telecommunications regulations mean that the fibre networks must, by law, be open for unbundling from the start of 2020.

Unregulated, for now

For now, the unbundling process and the prices wholesale fibre companies can charge is not regulated. The idea is that the industry can hold commercial negotiations. If that doesn’t work, then the regulator will step in.

Unbundling worked well for some ISPs when Telecom was forced to unbundle the copper network over a decade ago. ISPs installed their own hardware at an exchange and paid Telecom a monthly access fee.

This worked well for a number of reasons. First, the service providers could cherry pick the most lucrative neighbourhoods. Second, there weren’t many exchanges and each exchange served a large number of customers. Third, the monthly access fee was regulated.

Bitstream then and now

It turned out that the price was considerably lower than the fee Telecom charged for bitstream access. Bitstream access was, to a degree, similar to the service ISPs now buy from New Zealand fibre companies.

The gap between these prices left ISPs with enough room to offer competitive prices to their customers or take the difference as increased margin.

Unbundling fibre is different. Instead of hundreds of exchanges each serving thousands of customers, there are thousands of fibre nodes each serving a handful of customers.

The other big difference is the way we price fibre services. Today’s layer 2 prices are regulated. Prices depend on the level of service, but typically they run from around $40 to around $65 for a gigabit service. The Commerce Commission based its pricing structure on a fibre company’s costs.

Difficulties

Now, this is where things get difficult for would-be unbundlers. The input cost difference for a wholesaler between operating a layer 2 service and an unbundled layer 1 service is pennies, not dollars. That $40 monthly access fee might drop to $38 or thereabouts if it was regulated along the same lines as a bundled line.

This doesn’t leave an unbundler with enough margin to play with.

Despite the unattractive underlying economics two telcos, Vocus and Vodafone, joined forces to push an unbundling programme.

Since late last year they’ve been showing a demonstration of what the technology might look like. They’ve also been dropping unsubtle hints suggesting that: ‘unbundled fibre had better be cheap’.

Like copper only different

Scratch the surface and its clear their thinking is the difference between bundled and unbundled fibre should be in line with things in the copper world.

Chorus’s proposal is that unbundling service providers pay a monthly access charge of $28.70 per line. This covers the fibre line from the customer to the nearest node, Chorus calls these nodes ‘splitters’. Usually 16 customers connect to each splitter.

On top of that, Chorus wants to charge $200 a month for the connection from the splitter to a central point where the service providers can connect the unbundled service to their own networks.

Unbundling at scale

You don’t need to be good with arithmetic to realise that this only works for a service provider if a lot of customers at any splitter want to buy their connection. A would-be unbundler would need to have more than a dozen connections at each node for prices to drop below the basic regulated bitstream monthly fee.

Although keep in mind here that an unbundled fibre line might operate at a blistering 10Gbps. That’s a service that could command a premium retail price.

To no-one’s surprise Vodafone and Vocus made it clear they don’t like the proposed price. A press release from the pair has the headline: “Chorus machinations could put competitive UFB on ice”.

Maths

In it, a clearly angry Vocus CEO Mark Callendar says the maths just doesn’t stack up. He is right. But the legislation was designed that way. There isn’t enough margin between layer 1 and layer 2 to make an ISP happy.

An access price that would please Callendar, at a previous media function he told me it should be under $20, would leave the fibre wholesale companies under water. They’d be bankrupt in no time and that would put critical national infrastructure at risk.

Back to the release where Callendar says: “…the Commerce Commission will now need to intervene, it’s as simple as that. The UFB network was designed to be unbundled and ultimately is an asset that the government has helped fund.”

The Commerce Commission was destined to be dragged into this row from the moment Vocus and Vodafone first announced an intention to unbundle.

Intervention

If it does intervene and assuming it follows a similar cost-based model, the would-be unbundlers are going to be as disappointed then as they are now. The economics of fibre unbundling mean it is a path that’s not worth the trouble, at least as far as residential customers are concerned.

Now, it’s quite possible that the spat you see on the surface is all there is. Yet there’s something else at play. Since the fibre network started, most of New Zealand’s service providers have raced to the bottom on price. It’s about the only point of difference they feel able to compete on.

As Vodafone CEO Jason Paris has said to me in a previous interview, they have competed away all the profits in the broadband business.

Thin margins

Margins are razor thin. Unbundling had potential to fix that. It’s also an opportunity for two high profile telcos to position themselves publicly as against New Zealand’s telecommunications regime without actually saying they are against the regime. Make no mistake, that’s the real object of their ire. 

In the public statements so far, they’ve poked the finger at Chorus.

There’s something in that. But Chorus is a creation of a telecommunications regime that the previous National government set up. The Labour government continued the same regime. There’s a broad political consensus that our telecommunications market is working as designed.

You could see Chorus as the government’s proxy in these matters. A useful punching bag if you don’t like the rules. 

Equivalence

One part of the disliked regime is something called equivalence. The idea is that Spark, Vodafone and Vocus get exactly the same prices, products and services from fibre companies as a five-person regional ISP working in rural Taranaki.

The big firms hate that. They like to use their clout and economies of scale to negotiate better terms from suppliers. Regulation stops them.

Consciously or unconsciously, Vodafone and Vocus hope the government is listening. That’s why so much of their rhetoric about unbundling uses politician-pleasing words like ‘innovation’ and ‘competition’.

Competition

Unbundling is clearly a competitive1 move, but it’s not really innovation in the sense we normally use the word. Assuming it is doing everything right at the back-end, the only practical option an ISP has to innovate with unbundled fibre services is to remove some of its capability from certain customers.

Remember this as the war of words heats up in coming months and the various parties troop into the Commerce Commission. They’d like to get a lower price for unbundled fibre.2 Who wouldn’t? But what they really want is to take back a little control and restore profit margins.

Disclaimer: Chorus pays me to edit the Download magazine and a weekly newsletter. It didn’t pay me to write about unbundling. Indeed, this post doesn’t reflect anyone’s opinion other than my own, certainly not Chorus’. No one vetted or otherwise approved this. Any mistakes are down to me. Your corrections or alternative opinions are welcome.


  1. Spark has options with its fixed wireless broadband. These should ramp up when 5G arrives. Vodafone ought to be able to do the same, but the local firm isn’t getting the investment it needs from Vodafone Group. Unbundling is a cheaper option. ↩︎
  2.  

  3. I’d expect the Commerce Commission to insist wholesale fibre companies propose a single per-line price in place of the more complex line and splitter tariff. ↩︎

You may be right if you think you’re not ready for or don’t need 10Gbps residential broadband. For now, it’s a niche product for a niche market.

Yet it won’t be long before it is mainstream.

Next month, New Zealanders will be able to test the world’s fastest residential broadband. From mid-March, 30 volunteers will get early access to 10Gbps on the Chorus fibre network.

It’s not the world’s first residential 10Gbps service. Singapore already has 10Gbps. Yet Chorus is early to the technology.

Now is the time for 10Gbps

There are good reasons to start testing now.

First, New Zealand’s UFB fibre infrastructure is ready for faster services. That was the plan from the outset. Moving to 10Gbps means new equipment at either end of the fibre. It’s an upgrade.

Second, it’s good to be ahead of the demand curve. When UFB was first dreamed up, planners expected one in five people who could get fibre to take it up by 2020.

Today, roughly half the people who can connect to fibre do. That number is set to increase as we get closer to the Rugby World Cup.

There are reasons why uptake is greater than expected. Netflix and Lightbox are the usual suspects. But that’s immaterial. The point is fibre growth has been well ahead of predicted demand curves. The same could be true for 10Gbps.

Prestige

Another, less tangible, reason to get cracking with 10Gbps is prestige.
New Zealand would be among only a handful of countries to offer the service. It’s a testament to our network and planners that we get there early.

On a more practical level, Chorus managed to announce its service ahead of competitors. It faces a form of competition from ISPs who want to unbundle fibre. Offering a faster 10Gbps service was one way an unbundler might have differentiated. That’s no longer an option.

Likewise, 10Gbps puts clear blue water between UFB fibre and fixed wireless broadband. When 5G arrives, it, in theory, could offer wireless data speeds that match today’s best UFB speeds.

On paper the 5G specification could see 10Gbps fixed wireless services. That is years off. Apart from anything else, it needs more spectrum than is available to cellular companies either now or after the next round of auctions.

Get ready for 10Gbps

A more subtle point is that having 10Gbps now encourages customers to prepare for faster broadband.

As things stand few homes can make full use of the speed. Devices operating at 10Gbps are scarce. The line speed is much faster than home wi-fi networks. You can buy network storage devices that run at 10Gbps, but slower speeds are more common.

Even among the homes that have wired networks, many can’t handle 10Gbps at the moment. The most popular residential Ethernet routers offer 1Gbps.

That’s why Chorus is being picky about who can take part in its test run.
Chorus is looking for 30 volunteers. Candidates need to already have a 1Gbps plan with one of the partner RSPs.

Chorus is a wholesale broadband provider. That means it can only serve 10Gbps broadband through one of its retail partners. Kordia, 2degrees, Trustpower and Stuff Fibre are among the first to sign up. Others will follow.

Test pilots have to live in one of three Chorus exchange areas. That’s Johnsonville in Wellington, Avondale and Birkenhead in Auckland.
Another must-have is a device with a 10Gbps port. Trialists will need to agree to provide feedback on the service.

Big (home) data

The trial is most suitable for people who work with large data files, say movies or high-quality audio. It may also be useful for homes with some high-end gamers or use other demanding applications.

The Chorus 10Gbps trial is a collaborative project. It will use Nokia’s XGS-PON (passive optical network) fibre technology.

Chorus chief customer officer, Ed Hyde says 10Gbps underpins New Zealand’s digital future. He says it will “continue our decade long commitment to innovation and keeping New Zealand’s broadband infrastructure at the cutting edge.”

If the trial is a success, Chorus aims to roll out the service nationwide. You can take that as read. It may not be everywhere this year, but it’s coming.

While Bill Bennett edits The Download magazine and a weekly newsletter for Chorus, this post is an independent opinion.

“Just seven percent of Australian broadband users subscribed to 100Mbps services, compared to 29 percent of New Zealanders.”

A report in today’s Commsday quotes S&P Kagan’s research on Asia Pacific 100Mbps broadband usage.

However, it isn’t clear if S&P is only counting users on 100Mbps or those on 100Mbps and higher speeds. The company hadn’t responded to a request for more information at the time of writing. 

This compares with figures from Chorus which says that 71 percent of mass market customers on the company’s network have connection speeds of 100Mbps or higher. Mass market in this context means consumer and small business accounts. 

The S&P Kagan number for New Zealand stacks up with local figures. In round numbers, about half the people with fibre access choose fibre plans. We know the numbers for other fibre areas are roughly in line with Chorus. We also know that fibre reaches at two thirds of the country at the moment. So give or take a point or two, 29 percent seems right.