The Telecommunications Bill going through Parliament sets the tone for New Zealand’s fibre era.

By 2022 around 87 percent of New Zealand’s population will have access to fibre.

Many homeowners and businesses have already chosen to connect to fibre. This month Statistics New Zealand reported one in three broadband connections are now fibre. That’s up from one in eight connections two years ago.

According to the most recent Broadband Deployment Update from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, uptake is now 44.1 percent. In some regions uptake is already higher than 50 percent.

The numbers continue to climb.

Fibre is only likely to get more popular with Spark buying up sports broadcast rights. Early next year the company will launch an app so viewers can watch Rugby, Football and Formula One racing online in high-definition. Other sport will follow.

Fibre everywhere

I’m not sticking my head out here by saying I expect half of all New Zealanders to have fibre connections by 2022. The number could be higher.

By then Spark will have a 5G mobile network, other mobile carriers could also offer fast mobile broadband and fixed wireless services with fibre-like speeds.

Many of those left with copper networks should see better experience thanks to VDSL and other fast copper technologies.

We will be in a new communications era.

New rules

Last year the National government introduced the Telecommunications Amendment Bill. It aims to set out the rules for fixed line telecommunications in the fibre era.

Most insiders expect the Bill to have its third and final reading between now and Christmas. After then it will be law.

This week the government tabled a supplementary order paper for the Bill. Among other things it sets a new cap for the wholesale price of a fibre connection.

The government has decided that a 100/20 mbps connection will be the benchmark. It calls this the anchor service. Some in the industry have argued that by 2022, 100/20 mbps will be bordering on obsolete. Never mind, the key point is that the price cap will $46.

Telecommunications Bill brings certainty

This is important as it gives everyone in the industry something to work with as they plan strategies for the coming era.

The figure means wholesale broadband companies make a profit. They have enough incentive to expand fibre networks beyond the reach of 87 percent of the population. No doubt this will happen over time.

Likewise retail service providers know what they need to charge consumers to make their broadband services pay. Everyone in the industry likes certainty.

Elsewhere the Bill will make telecommunications regulations more like those in other utilities. It will remove unnecessary rules that are a hang-over from the copper era.

Watching service quality

The Bill also aims to get the Commerce Commission to take more notice of retail service quality. The Commerce Commission will also get to check that emergency services are available even in the event of a power failure, which would knock out fibre services.

The Commerce Commission will be allowed to conduct inquiries into any matter relating to the industry or for the long-term benefit of consumers.

Telecommunications Minister Kris Faafoi says the new regulated price: “…represents a fairer deal for everyone: a good price for New Zealand broadband consumers and a reasonable price for Chorus”.

Chorus CEO Kate McKenzie says the supplementary order paper provides some clarification. She says: “We welcome this step towards a new regulatory framework for New Zealand’s key communications infrastructure. We look forward to the passage of the bill and to starting work on implementation”.

One thing that hasn’t been said in public, but is discussed by the industry in private is that the certainty brought by the Bill when it becomes law should calm things down between the various players.

The last year or so has seen retail and wholesale companies jockey for position ahead of the Bill. Relations between players have been tense. Most of the time this has been behind the scenes, but every so often something emerges in a speech or a media interview.

Once the Bill becomes an Act, everyone can get back to the more important business of finding innovative ways to make money from telecommunications services. That means giving customers what they want and seeking out new things that we are going to want in future.

The Commerce Commission says retail telecoms service will be one of its priorities for the next year.

While the telecommunications industry gets more than its fair share of political and regulatory scrutiny, there is unfinished business.

The Commerce Commission’s timing makes sense. The first phase of the UFB fibre build finishes over the next 12 months.

Soon after that, the pre-5G mobile jockeying will start in earnest. Spark is already making noises about moving to 5G.

In a media statement, the commission says it has “been working to improve its understanding of the retail telco issues faced by consumers”.

Service quality

This year the commission says it intends to monitor areas of service quality including billing, contract terms, marketing and switching between service providers.

The media statement says:

“We also expect to implement new consumer provisions from amendments to the Telecommunications Act, including industry codes to address issues of retail service quality.”

This is in addition to work the Commerce Commission is already doing on the implications of competition and regulation in mobile and fixed line services.

Are we being served

Service quality is something of a black hole in the telecommunications sector.

Improved service quality was one of the objectives of the 2009 reforms. It was just as big an issue then.

At the time Telecom NZ divided into what is now Spark and Chorus.

The planners thought telcos would compete on service quality after the industry separated into wholesale and retail layers. Instead they raced to the bottom on price.

Few if any telco’s offer a high service quality option today. Consumers are free to choose between various levels of indifferent service. They range from near-hostile to grudging customer support.

Little or no service

This has lead to a curious state of affairs.

Telcos offering less formal customer service rank higher in consumer preference surveys.

Spark’s low-cost Skinny brand often rates as delivering better service.

Skinny doesn’t have a traditional call centre. Instead it handles everything online.

Not offering much customer service, means Skinny customers don’t expect much. Their illusions are never shattered.

Of course Skinny targets a particular demographic: mainly young tech-savvy people looking for a bargain.

It’s a market that prefers not to use call centres. Moreover, younger New Zealanders have no recollection of a time when support seemed better.

Agile to the rescue?

Spark is moving to a new Agile way of working. Liam Dann has a great feature on Spark’s Agile project in The New Zealand Herald.).

Agile was originally a manifesto for software developers. One of Agile’s ideas is a focus on satisfying customers.

In the case of software developers, customer usually means whoever pays the bill. It can be an external client. It can also be another division of the same organisation. Consumers are rarely customers in this sense.

It isn’t clear if Spark version of Agile means satisfying consumers. Some of the rhetoric to leak suggests it is. If so, it’ll be interesting to see how this works. It’ll also be interesting to see if it satisfies the Commerce Commission.

Other service issues

The Commerce Commission is also looking at contract terms, marketing and switching.

Switching between providers is now easy. At least in theory. Number portability makes it simple for mobile customers. For fibre customers, switching involves little more than a click of a mouse button on a dashboard.

However, telcos like to tie customers into long contracts. This makes switching harder. In their language this is called customer churn.

Some telcos, Trustpower is an example, offer televisions or fridges to people signing longer terms.

Others, offer the lure of a low starting price for a few months. The small print says customers then pay more for the remainder of, say, a 24 month term.

These deals can end up more expensive that no-contract subscriptions.

Break clause

While most contracts are legal, they’re heavily weighted in favour of the telco. Some have expensive break clauses.

It can be hard to find a service from a name brand that doesn’t come with contract strings attached. This often means angst when customer circumstances change.

Many of the problems with marketing are linked to contracts. It’s rare for many months to pass without another telco pushing the boundaries of responsible marketing.

Both contracts and dodgy marketing remain regular issues for Telecommunications Dispute Resolution. There’s a clear need to beef up protections in these areas. The Commerce Commission is right to worry about them.

Margrethe Vestager, the European commissioner for competition, says the government has to move fast to ensure that tech does not subvert society. Presumably, she means the European government.

“…as it becomes clearer how those companies were used to manipulate the 2016 U.S. elections, Vestager feels validated in her distrust of Silicon Valley’s power…”

The quotes come from a podcast interview. It shows Europe, or at least Europe’s competition regulator, is moving in a different direction to the USA and Asia. On the surface at least, these regions seem more comfortable with power being concentrated in fewer hands.

European market

“We want a free market, but we know that the paradox of a ‘free’ market is that sometimes you have to intervene. You have to make sure it’s not the law of the jungle, but the laws of democracy that works.”

Vestager said her commission will continue to focus on preventing large tech incumbents like Google from stifling competition from startups. She also has misgivings about the secrecy surrounding the algorithms that power much of the internet.

“I think some of these algorithms, they’ll have to go to law school before they’re let out. You cannot just say, ‘What happens in the black box stays in the black box.’ You have to teach your algorithm what it can do and what it cannot do, because otherwise there is a risk that the algorithms will learn the tricks of the old cartels.”

While it is easy to identify problems caused by tech companies, fixing them looks harder. Regulating for greater competition is a start, so is transparency, yet, for now, the tech giants have momentum.

Source: Europe’s chief regulator Margrethe Vestager on reining in tech: ‘This is the biggest wake-up call we’ve ever had’ – Recode

I talk on Radio New Zealand National Nine-to-noon programme with Katherine Ryan about the US government moves to scrap net neutrality rules. It’s available as a 20-minute audio stream or download. 

This has been on the cards since the US election a year ago. The telecommunications giants pushed for the new government to scrap net neutrality. No-one else is happy about the idea. In the audio, I explain some ideas behind the issue. I also look at why there is such a fuss in the US when most other countries don’t care.

If you’re new to the subject or would like some background on how net neutrality applies here,  Net Neutrality in New Zealand will bring you up to speed.

Silverdale 4.5G cell siteCompetition and regulation economist Donal Curtin says in a blog post there may be unfinished business with the mobile termination rate.

The mobile termination rate is the sum one cellphone company pays another for calls going from network to network.

Curtin is responding to the Commerce Commission annual report on the telco market.

He writes:

I speculated last year that maybe it is time to revisit our regulated mobile termination rate: it’s still unrevisited, at a left-high-and-dry level by comparison to current overseas rates, for no obvious reason that I can see. And there’s an ongoing issue with the high cost of mobile data downloads to data-only devices.

It’s a good point. Some see the MTR as done and buried. Yet there were always plan to reset the rate. As Curtin points out, the charge in New Zealand is high by international standards.

Yet, I’d argue this is far from the most pressing piece of telephone industry regulation. I’ll write more about what should worry the Commerce Commission in another post.

Mobile termination rate

The mobile termination rate is a financial transfer between the three cellphone companies. Vodafone, Spark and 2degrees pay each other.

This was of vital importance when 2degrees was still a fledgling cellular company as it meant the company ended up paying a larger slice of its revenue to its rivals. This made it a barrier to market competition. In effect, the MTR rate penalised 2degrees for being smaller than its rivals.

What matters most about MTRs is not the total payment from one company to another but the net payment. As 2degrees’ market share increased, the net handover of MTR money decreases.

Competition barrier

If you had three players with identical market share, the net MTR transfers would be zero. We’re not at that point, but the market is moving towards it.

It speaks volumes that 2degrees hasn’t sought to raise the issue again in recent years. During the company’s early years it did a lot of lobbying about MTRs. That can be distracting to a business and imposes a different set of costs.

The lack of noise from 2degrees is not the only reason that MTRs are of less interest.

Curtin mentions mobile data. The cellular market is switching from voice calls to data use at a clip. Data is already more important than voice. In other words, the MTR has less impact. When the Commerce Commission last regulated the MTR, calls were close to 100 percent of the cellular business. Today they might account for 50 percent at most.

Underlining this switch, all three mobile carriers offer affordable unlimited voice plans. Skinny has unlimited calling plans starting at $30 a month. Spark’s and Vodafone’s start at $60. With 2degrees unlimited call plans covering New Zealand and Australia start at $50.

If carriers can deliver all-you-can-eat mobile plans at these prices, the MTR doesn’t seem to be a barrier to competition.

Sure, reducing the MTR would mean a flatter playing field, but in many respects the New Zealand cellular market works fine.