Bonfire night

So what’s it to be – a sky rocket or a damp squib?

Tomorrow is November 5 and for most people of UK decent that
means Guy Fawkes, gunpowder, treason and plot and, of course, the burning in effigy of a 400 year old terrorist.

This year, November 5 is also the day the Commerce
Commission comes out with its final price for the regulated UBA service – that
is, the price ISPs pay for part of the wholesale service they buy to sell us

The draft determination knocked almost 25% off Chorus’s UBA
price and that apparently was a surprise to all concerned. It wasn’t, of course
– we were expecting more than that given how much CallPlus can sell its
wholesale service for – but both Chorus and the Prime Minister were apparently
gobsmacked by it.

Chorus says the reduction will take $160m off its annual
revenue and will require a major rethink in terms of how it operates. Well, yes
– that’s probably why the Telco Act included a three year moratorium on the in
introduction of the new regime in order to give Chorus time to do just that.

The Prime Minister says Chorus will go broke, although
Chorus was quick to deny this and the stock markets in both Australia and New
Zealand were happy enough with Chorus’s comments about its ability to function
as a business.

The Minister pulled the review of the Telco Act forward from
2019 to now and decided rather than reviewing the entire piece of legislation
she would focus with laser-like precision on one problem: how to make sure
Chorus doesn’t have to reduce its income from copper lines.

Tomorrow the Commission will announce its final price and,
if it’s high enough, the government will put its review away and we can go on
about our business. If it’s not high enough, then Chorus will call for a Final
Pricing Principle (FPP) review of the Commission’s workings which will take a
couple of years and will likely result in the price falling even further, so
I’m told by the economists who look at this kind of thing. The government will
declare that it has consulted broadly with all interested parties and that
given the choice of three options (all of which see the price of copper
wholesale rise well above the draft determination) it will pick one and
introduce new legislation before the next election.

How on earth did we get to such a stupid point? It really is
quite remarkable – we spent the better part of the 1990s with no regulation at
all and as a result fared quite poorly on all counts. Even when regulation was
introduced in 2001 it was so weak we managed to avoid doing anything useful for
five years and it wasn’t until 2006 that the Commission was given the teeth it
needed to do the job properly.

Now, after what must be seen as a brief but golden era, we
are back to the position of the minister trying to set prices in closed-door
meetings with providers with no transparency, no independence and no thought
given to the ramifications of these decisions on the broader market.

It all boils down to Section 18 of the Telecommunications

S18 is short but quite incomprehensible.

To avoid doubt, in
determining whether or not, or the extent to which, competition in
telecommunications markets for the long-term benefit of end-users of
telecommunications services within New Zealand is promoted, consideration must
be given to the incentives to innovate that exist for, and the risks faced by,
investors in new telecommunications services that involve significant capital
investment and that offer capabilities not available from established services.

In essence, so far as I can tell, what it says is that while
the Commerce Commission must act in the long term best interests of the
consumer, it must also give consideration to the risks faced by investors in
new technology. Quite what “consideration” must be given isn’t spelled out, nor
does the Act describe how the Commission must decide what is a new technology
and what isn’t.

How would the Commission differentiate, for example, between
fibre as a new technology (it isn’t) versus LTE as a new technology (it is).
We’ve had fibre for years, but LTE is brand new and clearly can compete with
copper lines if not with fibre itself.

The Commission has left LTE out of its determinations but
has been told to include fibre because the government is investing heavily in
UFB and therefore we should consider it. Let’s not worry about Telecom,
2Degrees or Vodafone’s billion dollar investments in LTE because that’s
different, somehow.

It’s all rather vexing.

The Commission did the only thing it could really do in the
circumstances – point out that S18 doesn’t really seem to have any real bearing
on the UBA determination, which is entirely about copper lines don’t forget,
and move on.

The government would like the Commission to benchmark the
UBA costs against the UFB deployment costs on the basis that it’s a “modern
equivalent asset”. Today, they argue, you wouldn’t deploy a copper network,
you’d deploy a fibre network and we know exactly how much that costs because
we’ve just run a tender process for one so that’s the price you should use.

Even the Europeans have backed away from this view. The
government’s discussion document hinges in large part on a draft policy
from Europe that does indeed say you should rely on the price of a
fibre to the home rollout, but the final version changes that to a comparison
with a fibre to the cabinet rollout – in effect, the network that Telecom
completed before it was structurally separated.

When the Telco Act was being introduced in 2010 I met with
the minister responsible for its creation, Steven Joyce. He joked that so far
we had changed the governing legislation three times in a decade and that was
no way to run an industry. I couldn’t agree more, but now we’re up to four
times in a decade and that’s just hopeless.

Tomorrow the Commission will either move the price enough to
satisfy the government, but in doing so betray the consumers of New Zealand, or
it will stick to its guns and face being regulated by the government of the

Either way the industry loses, and the country as a whole
will continue to look at telecommunications as some kind of high farce,
although from where I sit it’s more like a tragedy than anything else.


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