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Bill Bennett

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When telcos don’t like regulated industry structure

Telcos are waging a public relations war on Ultrafast Broadband. Reading between the lines of their public statements, they don’t like the regulated market model.

This was set-up over a decade ago by John Key’s first government. The government restructured telecommunications. It tilted the playing field in favour of customers. New Zealand businesses and consumers got a great deal.

Regulated separation

Reforms separated the market into two parts. Regulated fibre companies would build, own and operate the UFB network. They are regional monopolies. They can only sell wholesale services.

Retail service providers can sell broadband without geographic boundaries. RSPs all buy wholesale services on identical terms.

This model promotes competition. No single player can dominate in the way companies could before the restructure.

Chorus, Northpower, Enable and UFF are the fibre companies. There are 90 retail service providers. The biggest and best known are Spark, Vodafone, Vocus, Trustpower and 2degrees.

Consumers are happy with how the market operates. At least those in areas that can get fibre are. The fact that people in areas without fibre are grumpy about it speaks volumes about the model’s success.

Best broadband

Thanks to UFB New Zealand has one of the best and most affordable broadband networks in the world.

It is great for consumers. It is less wonderful for big RSPs. The biggest ones are not happy.

There are two main reasons they don’t like the UFB model.

First, from their point of view, separation does too good a job of promoting competition. RSPs fail to compete on anything other than price. They discount broadband to the point where, as Vodafone CEO Jason Paris says; “They compete away all the margins”.

Thin margins

Retail broadband margins are wafer thin.

A consumer might pay $80 to $100 or so each month for a fibre broadband account. Roughly half of that goes to the wholesale fibre company. RSPs have overheads and costs. The margin is often less than 10 percent of the monthly fee. It can be lower, some only make five percent.

They get that money 12 times a year. Yet regulated UFB is not as lucrative as the old ways of selling telecommunications.

This explains why Spark and Vodafone are keen on fixed wireless broadband. It’s an inferior product, but they get to keep a larger slice of the cake.

The second reason the bigger telcos don’t like the UFB model is they are not in control of their own destiny. This bothers them. They have few options, little room to manoeuvre.

Equivalence

Another, less obvious grievance is the UFB idea known as equivalence.

A supermarket chain like Countdown pays less for products than the wholesale price paid by a corner dairy. They get economies of scale. Countdown buys tins of baked beans from a wholesaler at a lower price than dairies pay.

Equivalence means the largest telco pays the same as the smallest RSP for a customer hook-up.

There are economies of scale when it comes to support, back-end services and marketing. Yet the aristocratic telcos resent paying the same price as the peasant RSPs.

Phoney war

All these aspects of the UFB model come into play as telcos wage a phoney war. It is a war that is being fought on a few fronts.

Last month there was fuss from big telcos about something known as the wall of bad debt. This sounds like something from the Pilgrim’s Progress.

Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees have been the most vocal. They say a recession is coming and they face large unpaid broadband bills.

They want Chorus, it’s always Chorus 1, to share the cost.

This is an unusual argument on two counts. Wholesalers don’t shoulder the risks of their retailers in other sectors.

What’s more, the debt risk facing the large RSPs is of their own making. When lockdown began the telcos said they would not cut off customers for non-payment.

Decent

It was a good and decent thing to do. Or at least it is a good and decent thing to do with your own money.

It’s not such a good and decent thing to be generous, then turn around and ask the fibre companies to pay half. It would be fine if they had gone to the fibre companies first and agreed something along these lines. But they didn’t.

This doesn’t mean their argument is unjustified. They have a case. It is not as clear cut as they argue.

It is not as if fibre companies don’t face their own post-lockdown financial risks.

First they had to keep contractors ticking over when there wasn’t much work. What’s more, they face their own potential wall of bad debt if RSPs go bust in the looming recession. Having an RSP fail to pay would be far more serious than an individual consumer missing a payment.

Moral hazard

There is a moral hazard aspect to the wall of bad debt. If telcos get wholesalers to carry half of the risk, they have an incentive to take more risks.

Companies have a tendency to be reckless when protected from consequences. Among other things, they might not chase bad debts as hard if they know they face half the loss. They might be less fussy about who they give credit to.

It doesn’t help Chorus’ case that it is now enjoying the financial light at the end of the UFB-build tunnel.

That said, Chorus agreed to pay $2 million towards the bad debts. In round numbers that’s about half the cost if 7000 New Zealanders fail to pay for six months of broadband. Around one million New Zealanders connect to the UFB. So if seven percent default on payment, Chorus pays RSPs half the cost.

Telcos don’t think that’s enough. Remember here that Chorus has no legal obligation to pay anything.

Minor regulatory risk

There is a small danger here to the idea of regulated separation. If the fortunes of wholesale fibre companies depend on RSP performance, they could play favourites. A bigger danger comes from another battle: fibre unbundling.

To understand how fibre unbundling threatens UFB, let’s go back to the original plan. The government decided fibre companies would sell layer 2 services. It left open an option for layer 1 services at a later date.

In this context layer 1 is an unbundled service.

That later date is now. Or, to be more precise, it was January this year.

Layers

You don’t need to know the technical nuance about layer 1 and layer 2 to understand what is at stake. Here’s the simple version.

In effect layer 2 means fibre companies sell RSPs a complete service from a home or office to a network node. This includes the network connection hardware at each end of the link. Fibre companies wrap all the parts needed to do this into a bundle and sell it as a whole.

If they sold layer one, RSPs would get a fibre connecting the home to the node. They pay for the hardware on the ends of the line. Hence unbundled.

The problem with unbundled fibre is that all the costs in a network are in the civil engineering. Stringing fibre around the country is expensive. The hardware on the ends of the fibre cost peanuts in comparison.

Wholesale UFB prices are regulated. The price depends on the cost of building and supporting the network. The bundled hardware turning layer 1 into layer 2 is a small percent of the total. The input cost difference between bundled and unbundled fibre is tiny.

In other words, in the UFB model unbundled fibre doesn’t make economic sense.

Economics

Big telcos know how the cost structure works, but don’t accept the economics. They continue to argue and lobby for lower unbundled prices. If they get their way, fibre companies would sell connections at below cost.

The entire regulated UFB model would collapse. And future governments would struggle to raise private capital for infrastructure projects.

This connects to another way telcos are waging war on UFB. Last week, a Vocus press release said the latest round of Chorus fibre price rises is: “cynical, money grabbing and unwarranted”.

It’s an opinion. UFB regulations say fibre companies can raise prices in line with inflation. That’s a step away from “cynical, money grabbing and unwarranted”.

Inflation is tiny, around one percent, so the rise is small. It reflects the increased costs fibre companies pay for maintenance. Without it, a fibre company’s margins would ratchet down each year.

Futureproof

Government choose this price rise as part of the regulated UFB model when it feared investors would not want to fund fibre. It needed this clause to attract investors. It still needs this clause to attract private investors for future infrastructure projects.

Vocus, like the other telcos can choose to pass this cost on to customers. As we’ve seen, competition is tight, if a telco raises prices customers may move elsewhere. But that’s how market economies work.

And that’s the story here. Price increases, unbundling and, to a lesser degree, the coming wall of debt are all hardwired into the UFB. Government designed market regulations that way for a reason.

Regulated competition

UFB has been a success, in part, because there is a competitive market. Unpick the regulations and the whole UFB fabric unravels.

The challenge facing telcos is that the market is too competitive. As Paris says, they have competed away their profits. Corporations might pay lip service to free markets, but they don’t like them.

Mobile means Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees have alternative paths to profit. Enterprise services, adding value through content deals or power billing are other paths. Being better at what you do is always an option. Market consolidation might help.

Attempting to repair margins by chipping away at the foundations of UFB is not a wise strategy. There was a time when Telecom thought it could defy government policy and regulation. Look how that ended.

Disclosure: I do freelance writing and editing for Chorus, but the company doesn’t tell me what to write. 


  1. Telcos have figured out it is easier to bash the biggest fibre company. Criticising Chorus gets more media attention and more sympathy, than disrespecting “fibre companies”. Yet almost every accusation made against Chorus applies to the other fibre companies. If, say, Northpower was the target of anger, that would look like bullying. ↩︎

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