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Chris Keall has the Vodafone overseas roaming story at the New Zealand Herald: Vodafone NZ increases global roaming cost from $5 to $7 a day. (The story is behind the pay wall).

A $2 price rise for overseas roaming doesn’t seem much until you realise it’s a 40 percent price increase at a time when inflation is close to zero. Few other service providers could get away with a 40 percent price hike.

That said, no-one can argue that New Zealand mobile phone margins are excessive.

Less than a beer

Nor could you argue that $7 a day for overseas roaming is not reasonable. If you can afford to travel overseas and you want to stay in touch, it costs less than a glass of beer. For many readers, it remains the best option and is far better than the bad old days of bill shock.

Vodafone’s first line of justification for the price rise borders on the ridiculous. Keall writes:

The spokeswoman said, “Vodafone launched Daily Roaming over five years ago and since then have made numerous improvements to the service, including expanding it from 23 destinations to now over 100. Included in the latest round of new destinations are Vietnam and Cambodia, which are hugely popular with Kiwis.

Chris Keall, NZ Herald, June 4, 2019

Vodafone benefits

The fact that there are more destinations may benefit customers. It benefits Vodafone more.

By giving the company a lot more opportunities to bill that $7 a day charge, it means much more revenue. It also improves internal costs by spreading the costs of administering overseas roaming charges across many more sales.

Let’s put it another way: imagine if New World said it was charging more for milk because it was stocking it in more supermarkets.

Vodafone has a much better argument when it says mobile data use is now running at three times the rate when the roaming service was first introduced. However, the cost of delivering a gigabyte of mobile data has fallen over time.

There’s a bit of snark about Vodafone’s customers not having to buy bundles… that’s how roaming works with Spark. And talk about one fixed price across markets where the costs are different. Well yes, but again, keeping the price structure simple is also of benefit to Vodafone.

Overseas roaming is revenue

Whatever the public justification, the increase is also about increasing revenue at a time when there’s little obvious growth. It’s also about improving margins. Both of these are fair enough, Vodafone is not a charity, yet for some reason, the company doesn’t feel able to say so.

The bigger concern for Vodafone customers could be that this is not the only price increase. Six months ago Vodafone jacked up broadband prices. There could be more in the pipeline.

Vodafone can’t go too far. As the Commerce Commission points out, New Zealand’s telecommunications market is competitive. If you don’t like Vodafone’s roaming price increases you can go elsewhere. The international equivalent of buying a prepaid Sim card in the first dairy as you leave the airport is also still an option.

2degrees launched New Zealand’s third mobile network almost ten years ago in August 2009. Today it accounts for roughly one in five mobile connections.

Last week 2degrees reported a modest net profit of $19.6 million on revenue of $805 million.

The company says a highlight of the year was a nine percent increase in contract mobile customers. A six percent drop in prepay customers went some way to offsetting that. It says many of these closed accounts when 2degrees switched off its 2G mobile network.

Still a minnow

It remains a minnow compared to Spark and Vodafone. The two big mobile companies each have around 2.5 million connections, while 2degrees trails with 1.4 million. Spark has almost 700,000 fixed-line broadband connections compared with 87,000 for 2degrees.

Spark’s annual revenue is in the region of $3.5 billion, while Vodafone’s is $2 billion.

2degrees plays an important role in New Zealand’s mobile sector. It makes the market more competitive. Before the company started, New Zealanders paid well over international average prices for mobile phone services.

Today the Commerce Commission reports “New Zealand mobile plan prices are well below the OECD average”. It says:

The price of a New Zealand entry-level mobile plan giving 30 calls and 500MB of data at $16 per month was 36 percent below the OECD average and well below Australia.

Higher use plans showed big price decreases and are well below the OECD averages.

Commerce Commission Annual Telecommunications Monitoring Report 2018

The report goes on to say NZ higher use plans are still more expensive than in Australia.

The flip side of this good news for consumers is that 2degrees has eaten into Spark and Vodafone profit margins. A clear sign of competitive pressure.

Some success

While 2degrees has been a success on some levels, it has yet to break through in the fixed-line and broadband markets.

It is the number five broadband service provider. 2degrees has about five percent of the market compared with Spark’s 43 percent and Vodafone’s 26 percent. Vocus, 13 percent, is also much bigger.

New Zealand broadband market share by connections

Another measure of the relative size of New Zealand telcos is the size of their contribution to the Telecommunications Development Levy. This is an annual tax on the industry. The government uses it pay for providing services to deaf and hearing-impaired people. Some of the money subsidises broadband for rural areas and upgrading the 111 emergency service.

2degrees pays the fourth highest contribution behind Spark, Vodafone and Chorus.

Telecommunications Development Levy

One of the biggest problems facing 2degrees is access to investment capital. It doesn’t have Spark’s deep pockets.

When the government auctioned 4G mobile spectrum in 2013, 2degrees didn’t buy its full allocation even though the price was deliberately kept low.

The challenge for 2degrees will be to find the money for further investment. To put this in perspective; Each of those first blocks of 4G spectrum went for $22 million apiece. That’s more than a year’s profit for 2degrees.

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.

Navigating the Huawei story is one of the toughest jobs in technology journalism at the moment.

There are many facts and statements, lots of suppositions swirling around, but no smoking guns, no hard evidence of wrong doing. 

Huawei may have a case to answer, but that question is almost submerged now.

A lot of damage is already done, not just to Huawei but to supply chains as well. I can’t ever remember seeing a company taken down like this before.

One danger is that it could have created a precedent. Who might be next?

Huawei P30 Pro screen

The US government has blacklisted Huawei. As a result Google has stopped providing and supporting the Android software used on Huawei phones. American chip makers can no long supply technology to Huawei. The Huawei blacklist is part of a wider trade dispute between the US and China. 

Does the Huawei blacklist mean I have to stop using my phone?

No. If you already have a Huawei it will carry on working as normal for now.

Could China be spying on me through my Huawei phone?

Don’t be silly. If you’re like the average Android phone user you already let Facebook, Google and others spy on you. They make money that way.

If China wanted to casually spy on you it could buy data from one of those companies. If you’re a serious intelligence target for Chinese agents they’re probably able to spy on you regardless of your phone’s brand.

Is my Huawei phone a security risk?

No more than any other Android phone. Android is more prone to malware and nasty stuff than other phones, but this changes nothing in that department.

Huawei has not always been the best at providing necessary software updates and security patches in the past. The company says it will go on supporting existing customers.

I was thinking of buying a Huawei phone…

That’s probably not a great idea although if sales slump you may be able to pick up a bargain.

If you buy a Huawei phone today you’ll get updates for the current version of Android. It’s most likely you’ll get upgrades for the next version. After that things start to get tricky.

At the moment we’re on Android Pie. The next version, Android Q is due in a few months. Huawei has had all the code for both of these.

The next version, R, should turn up in about 14 months. The way things stand today Huawei won’t get that code.

Without official support, you could be cut adrift from the Android mothership in as little as 14 months. Huawei says it will continue with security upgrades, but you may struggle to run some apps once R is mainstream.

What about other Chinese Android phone brands?

How much of a gambler are you? The recent Huawei blacklist is specific to one company, but it’s part of an escalating trade war between the US and China. If you count yourself as cautious, then wait to see how the dust settles before buying an alternative Chinese brand.

Isn’t Android supposed to be open source?

Only up to a point.

Android has a number of layers. At the top there’s Huawei’s own software overlay, that’s EMUI on the premium phones. There’s a service layer which connects to things like the Google Play store, Maps and Gmail.

There’s a low level layer that connects the operating system to the hardware. The underlying Android operating system, AOSP is open source. Huawei will still be able to use that. It will be updated as normal.

However, Google usually shares this code with favoured phone makers months before the code is made public. Phone makers pay vast sums for this.

The blockade means Huawei will now get the code on release day, so users may wait months for upgrades.

This is how AOSP works for many smaller Chinese phone makers. If you’ve tried one of those phones you’ll know the customer experience often leaves much to be desired.

Yet it’s also how Huawei’s Chinese phone business works, so the company already knows how to deal with the restrictions.

The real problem is with those services or those of us living in western countries. If Google makes changes there could be problems for existing phone users.

Will I be cut off from Google services?

No. At least not for the foreseeable future. You might not get any new services introduced from next year on.

Is any of this covered by the Commerce Act?

That’s a good question. The simple answer is you probably won’t be able to use the Commerce Act as a way of getting your money back if the phone goes on working as normal. Although there’s an interesting precedent that suggests otherwise.

In the longer term you may have a case if a lack of software updates means the phone is, in effect, rendered useless before a reasonable period of time. 

If this happens, it won’t matter if Huawei is no longer active in New Zealand (see below). The phone retailer is liable, not the manufacturer.

What does this mean for Huawei’s phone business in New Zealand?

It’s possible the spat between the US and China blows over in a few weeks and things will return to normal. If not, it will soon be hard for Huawei to sell phones here. Anecdotal evidence says customers are already avoiding the brand.

That’s a shame because Huawei makes some of the best Android phones. It is the number three phone brand here. While it may not always look like it, Huawei acts to keep Samsung and Apple competitive.

Phones account for about half of Huawei’s revenue worldwide. Half of its sales are in China where losing Google isn’t a problem. So a quarter of the company’s revenue is at risk.

On the other hand, no-one knows if Huawei make much, if any, profit from phone sales. The Huawei blacklist could lead to the company exiting the phone market outside of China. If that’s the case, it could be doing Huawei a favour.