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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
Unbundling is clearly a competitive 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. 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.