Guest blog - Where to for universal service

Guest post from Hayden Glass from the Sapere Research Group.

And broadband for all


Now everyone has access to a telephone, the question is how to get everyone great broadband.


Next year, the government will review the rules about universal service, ie, the questions of what minimum level of telecommunications service should be guaranteed to everyone, and how best to make that happen.

The legislation requiring the review is quite specific about what to cover, including whether existing universal service rules are still needed, how they should be delivered on, and funding arrangements.

Successive governments have required Telecom to make basic voice services available to everyone. These historic requirements are now out of date, overtaken by competition and by technology (especially mobile). The real questions for the future are about broadband, as the government's Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI) recognises.

Part 1 of this post looks at what the universal telecommunications services are, and how the requirements have fared over time.

Part 2 will consider the future, explain why the RBI is a big improvement, and looks at what remains to be done.

What is universal service

The universal service programme in New Zealand suffers under the moniker of the Telecommunications Service Obligation for Local Residential Telephone Service (TSO). Fundamentally its job was to ensure that everyone had access to a fixed-line telephone that they could afford. (There are also separate arrangements for a text relay service for the deaf, confusingly also called a TSO, that are not the subject of this post.)

The latest incarnation of the TSO is a deed (WARNING: PDF) agreed in December 2011 as part of the separation of Telecom and its network arm, Chorus. The TSO imposes four main requirements on Telecom.

* Never raise the price of basic fixed-line phone service for residential customers faster than the rate of inflation, unless Telecom can show its profitability is "unreasonably impaired".
* Never charge more in rural areas than in urban areas for "basic residential service", which in effect means Telecom's standardHomeline service .
* Continue to offer fixed-line phone service to all customers who were connected in December 2001, and
* Provide free local calling as part of the basic phone service for residential customers. Via an exchange of letters with the government in 2000,  Telecom was also required to provide slow-speed dialup services to most customers.

Chorus, the network company, has obligations to maintain its fixed network coverage to ensure that Telecom can continue to meet its obligations.

These obligations have changed only slightly since they were put in place on Telecom's privatisation in 1989 despite radical changes in the industry in the meantime. The slow-speed dial-up data requirements were put in place in 2001, when Telecom was given the ability to bill its competitors for some of the alleged negative profit impacts of having to meet these obligations. The Commerce Commission checks each year whether the obligations have been met .

The 2001 requirement for the industry to compensate Telecom was never going to be a popular policy in the industry. It led to a verylong-running legal dispute eventually won by Vodafone, although as between Telecom and Vodafone the case had already been settled before the last court decision came out. Vodafone was essentially arguing that the Commission had not followed the law properly and as a result had substantially overstated the cost of the TSO obligations for Telecom. Soon after, the government announced it would get rid of the contribution system, particularly in light of evidence cited by the government that Telecom had not spent the money it had been given by Vodafone and others on rural network infrastructure in any case.

Universal service anyway

The TSO obligations have worked so far as they went, ie, the fixed-line network is as no smaller than it was in 1989, the price of basic fixed-line phone has gone up at almost exactly the rate of inflation, and free local calling remains part of Telecom's Homeline package (as seen in the Commerce Commission's helpful report).

But thanks to competition and technological change, these obligations are now chronically out of date.

* Ensuring access to a fixed-line telephone is no longer the problem. Just about everyone has access to a fixed line and a mobile phone, coverage continues to expand through competition, philanthropy (Vodafone's community tower build programme), and the RBI, and local calls are cheaper and cheaper on prepay mobile plans with no minimum spend.

* The price cap on residential phone service was insufficiently tough in the first place. The Commerce Commission thinks that free local calling has retarded competition, and that New Zealand has one of the highest prices for standard residential service in the OECD. The price of standard residential phone services has risen even while prices for other phone services have collapsed.  Local calling is only "free" for customers who pay the high monthly fee, which might be why the now-renamed Ministry of Economic Development calls it "charge-free local calling".

In short, the existing TSO is a solution to a problem that no longer exists. The real issue now is broadband for everyone. As we shall see in Part 2.

Hayden Glass is a consultant specialising in telecommunications with the Sapere Research Group, one of Australasia's largest expert services firms.