Comcom 2 Chorus 0

This morning the Court of Appeal rejected the Chorus appeal of the High Courts earlier ruling upholding the Commerce Commissions process interpreting the 2011 Telecommunications Act.

In a nutshell this means that the whole process of moving to ‘cost plus’ based pricing for wholesale, regulated copper broadband services just got 1 step closer.

We’re glad to see this happen, but we really just want to see Chorus get on with it. 

This saga has come to represent why New Zealand needed to move from the old privatised ‘monopoly utility’ to a structurally separated, regulated, open access model. that required a move from the old ‘retail minus’ wholesale model to a genuine and non-discriminatory ‘cost plus’ model. 

The reason for this was simple, retail minus simply cannot exist in a structurally separated model, Spark (Telecom) must have the same input costs as everybody else or the only possible result is a market of ‘stunted dwarves’ whose margins and profitability are set at the whim of the dominant player. 

Tune out the spin and you’re left with two conclusions, firstly the Government actually got the 2011 Act pretty much right and secondly that the day must come when Chorus investors must seriously question the board and management as to the wisdom and cost of the strategy they have chosen to follow. 

Here’s how TUANZ makes a difference

I’m meeting with quite a few people at the moment and the topic of TUANZ’s raison’d’etre often comes up. There is a view that we’ve fought the fights that needed to be fought, but now the market will take care of things and we should just retire gracefully basking in the glow of a job well done.

The thing is that our voice is needed now more than ever, and our user perspective is very different from the carrier view or that of the officials and regulators. Our strength comes from our voice being listened to.

So I’m pretty pleased to learn from NBR (sadly behind the paywall) that my late night musings on things gigabit has helped to produce a result:

Chorus: gigabit soon across our entire network
NBR put the Dunedin South MP’s criticism to Chorus.

Spokesman Ian Bonnar replied,  “We already offer Gigabit business products, and we have long had residential Gigabit services on our product roadmap.

“Since last year we have been working with our retail service provider (RSP) customers to understand how and when we can best launch residential Gigabit products and we expect to do so soon, across our entire fibre network.”


So if gigabit fibre is coming to all Chorus’ UFB areas (essentially, the whole country besides UFF’s eight towns, and Whangarei and Christchurch), and its own fibre elsewhere, why should we care who wins Gigatown?

Thats awesome, I’m glad that gigabit is on the Chorus roadmap and its safe to assume market pressures will keep the wholesale pricing sharp.

The challenge now is to the RSP’s, we need you guys to figure out how to create gigabit services (I’ve been talking to some folk with a few ideas in this space). We’re not expecting to buy gigabit products in July but now we can put them on our roadmaps.

Next week I’ll be looking at ‘the state of the stack’ and what we can expect from UFB products, if you read the comments in the NBR article you’ll also see several commenters who are stuck in the blind spot between the UFB and the RBI (the 3 speed internet we were concerned about as the UFB was being negotiated).

Its hard to put an immediate value on our advocacy but if you are a member thank you your continuing support lets us function, if your not a member but think this is a useful role the membership details are on this site.

Chorus ups the ante on fibre speeds

Chorus has announced a new line-up of fibre products designed to encourage uptake of the UFB.

In essence, this is a very good move. In a world where VDSL can offer equivalent speeds (albeit with caveats on that) at the same price but without the horrendous experiences of having your street/garden/house dug up to connect, any fibre service will need to offer significantly more in order to compete.

Chorus is proposing a 100Mbit/s download speed and 20Mbit/s upload speed service s its new entry level product for residential customers.

Business customers can get a 1Gbit/s symmetrical service for a wholesale price of $275 a month.

This is great news as it gives customers a real reason to move to fibre. Stuff 30/10 – if I can get 100/20 for the same price, I know where I’m going.

It’s good for Chorus too, because the more customers taking up fibre, the fewer there are on copper which, as you know, is fully regulated and will be providing far less revenue in the future than it did in the past.

Ultimately, we want more investment in fibre, more customers using fibre and less effort and money spent on the copper network. Once the fibre has been installed to my house, I’ll be ringing someone (Telecom, presumably) to come and take out the copper connection.

For many in government, this question of what happens to the copper network is a big issue. I don’t see it that way. Eventually, 75% of the population will have fibre to their home. At that point, the copper network in those areas can be switched off and pulled out of the ground. It is surplus to requirements and given the price of copper on the open market, should fetch quite a pretty penny.

On top of that, Chorus won’t want to keep two networks operating when it doesn’t have to. I would back switching off copper to that 75% as soon as the lines are in. It’s not forced migration, but it is a one-way door. There is no going back once the fibre is connected.

That leaves us with the 25% of the population that won’t get fibre under this current project. That’s also clear cut, in my view. Chorus is still required to offer those essential services, the old Kiwi Share services, to that population base, and until there’s an alternative it must continue to do so. Of course, we need to come up with that alternative as quickly as possible, and make sure it’s capable of delivering on the broadband future promise.

At the recent NorthPower launch celebration, the Prime Minister hinted that the UFB network isn’t going to be static once it’s completed. He suggested (vaguely, mind you) that there could be more to come, and frankly that’s a good thing. Solving the rural broadband problem is going to be key to any future economic strategy in New Zealand.

There are caveats around Chorus’s new product set. These are commercial offers, and exist outside the Crown Fibre contractually-obligated regime. They’re Chorus offers, so may not be offered by the LFCs who will once again be miffed at Chorus making changes they’ll have to either match or ignore. By going it alone, Chorus runs the risk of alienating its LFC partners and we could end up with a two-tier structure of Chorus versus the LFCs. That’s down to Crown Fibre’s management plans, and I’d strongly urge CFH to do more to coordinate these kinds of activities.

The devil will be in the detail, as ever, and we need to know about the quality of the service. What will the committed rates be, what happens next year when these contracts expire – will the prices go up – and what role, if any, will the Commerce Commission have in the future fibre price disputes, because these are commercial products, not the ones offered through the Crown Fibre contracts and so, presumably, are open to regulation.

But when you’re facing declining revenue in the copper world, as we’ve said all along, the best way forward is to encourage the migration to fibre and these new plans should certainly help with that.

IPP vs FPP: What the High Court has to say about it all

The High Court has ruled against Chorus in its battle to overturn the Commerce Commission determination on UBA pricing. The ruling can be found here.

This possibly won’t be the end of it – it’s unclear yet whether Chorus can or even will appeal the decision further – but for now we have guidance on how Section 18 of the Telco Act should be applied.

I’ve written about s18 and what it means for the industry elsewhere – in brief, due consideration must be made by the Commission to the needs of investors in new technology.

The Commission argued that it couldn’t go beyond the available evidence when considering its responsibilities under s18, that it couldn’t take in all the evidence, discuss the matter with the industry, work up a draft and then a final determination and then throw it all away because one clause of the Act says it should consider the needs of investors in new technology.

Chorus argued that the Commission should apply s18 at every step of the process and that by waiting until the end to apply s18, it had erred in its interpretation of the law.

“[Chorus argued that] s 18 is a mandatory relevant consideration, which must be applied at every point where a material judgment is made that affects the ultimate result. That would include process decisions, decisions of exclusion of eligible benchmarks, investment in further information gathering, decisions on the  range within which a price point would be selected (if there is any narrowing of options at that stage), and selection of the final price point.”

The Judge, the Honourable Justice Stephen Kos, disagreed with Chorus and said:

“In my view the statutory language is not prescriptive that s 18 is a consideration borne into (and interwoven through) the benchmarking analysis to be undertaken by the Commission, at the evidential stage. Indeed, I can see every reason why it would not be. That sort of external consideration does not seem to me to form a relevant part of the evidence-gathering exercise. Rather, it is relevant to what to do with the evidence once it is obtained.”

The Commission’s argument around s18 is that it can’t be used to move the determination outside the process laid down in the Act, and it’s that which swayed the Judge’s decision.

The whole issue has arisen out of the difference between the Initial Pricing Principle (IPP) and the Final Pricing Principle (FPP) and as the Judge points out, the very reason we have an IPP in the first place.

Conducting an FPP is a lengthy, laborious and costly task. It requires the Commission to build an economic cost model for the service being regulated, based on an efficient supplier’s costs.

Typically these things take a very long time to build, involve much shouting and wailing from all parties and are used only once or twice before being discarded, surplus to requirements.

Because of that, the recommendation (originally made way back in the Fletcher Inquiry of 2000) was that the Commission use a cheap and cheerful benchmarking exercise for the easy stuff. That is, instead of building expensive bespoke cost models, it would simply benchmark against countries that use a similar methodology to New Zealand.

In the past this has been enough for the parties involved. Until now, nobody has called on the Commission to conduct the full FPP process. We’ve looked around the world, found similar regimes and compared our price with theirs. It’s not perfect, but it’s supposed to be quicker and cheaper.

In this instance, the IPP found a benchmark set of only two countries, which certainly alarmed both the Commission and the telco industry. However, after conducting its usual tediously transparent process that included input from all the parties, including the users and investors, the Commission ran a cross-check against a wider group of countries that included a set that were excluded from the final group for various reasons. That range ran from $6.56 to $11.45, effectively bracketing both the draft determination and the final $10.92 price determined by the Commission. Nothing the Commission did fell outside the law.

Which raises an interesting question – if the IPP is supposed to be the quick version, how does the Commission think it can conduct a full FPP for not one but two services in ten months, when the IPP process took far longer?

But that’s a question for another time. For now, the High Court has handed down confirmation that the Commission’s process follows the law as it stands and even, at times, exceeds the expectation.

To quote the Judge once more:

“The Commission has exercised a judgment, as it is required to. It has done so following a process probably more extensive than Parliament had in mind. It certainly took longer than Parliament had in mind. It is worth reminding ourselves that the Fletcher Inquiry, the progenitor of this IPP pricing process, had in mind that New Zealand could simply piggy-back international evidence, and that the result would be a “quick and cheap” process compared to the FPP cost-based modelling approach.”

The Commission hopes to have the FPP decision completed and made public in time for the 1 December deadline. I’m no betting man but I think that’s optimistic and we’re more likely to see a result this time next year, if not later.

That final price? I’d say it will fall to below $10 per line per month.


Shuffling the cards, but no new hand for Chorus

Chorus and Crown Fibre have announced several changes to the UFB contracts that should help Chorus better manage its costs.

There are a few changes that seem quite reasonable.

Chorus will have more flexibility about work within a candidate area and what order it does stuff. Apparently the original contract was quite specific about the process – Chorus now has some latitude to do things the way it would like to. 

That will leave 12,000 households without fibre in the short term when they were expecting it, but they won’t miss out entirely. They’ll just have to wait a bit longer.

EDIT: I’ve misunderstood that bit. This, apparently, relates to business areas where Chorus has an existing point-to-oint fibre footprint that pre-dates UFB. Previously they were required to dig a lateral to every premise boundary and make every area GPON-ready by December 2015 regardless of demand. Now they will be allowed to do these works on demand, provided all the work is completed by December 2019. Apologies for the mis-reading.

It also gets a more regular round of progress payments which should make it easier for the company to manage its cash flow. Having been involved in a building project last year, I know how hard it is for contractors to manage cash flow when customers want to see an end result before paying. Sharing that load out on a monthly basis will no doubt help Chorus tremendously.

And instead of having to replace perfectly acceptable Cat5e or 6 or even fibre deployments from a business park or apartment building or school, for example, Chorus will now be able to make use of existing networking gear, so long as it’s up to spec.

That’s all fine, but I can’t imagine any of it will make a huge difference to the costs of deployment.

There are a couple of issues that concern me, however. Chorus gets to use its existing fibre networks and simply upgrade them to UFB capability. In this case, ‘upgrade’ is something of a misnomer – it will run UFB over the top of point-to-point fibre. If that sounds familiar it’s because last week Vodafone suggested Chorus do just that with its fibre and HFC networks and both the minister and Chorus dismissed the option out of hand.

But Chorus’s own fibre is perfectly acceptable.

This is very interesting. It makes me wonder – again – why Chorus isn’t using existing fibre from other providers. It may well be doing so – ministry officials tell me Chorus is allowed to roll out UFB over existing infrastructure if it’s up to the job, but I haven’t found a single instance of that happening. Instead of signing deals with Vodafone or CityLink or Unison or Network Tasman, Chorus has overbuilt with its own network.

Now Chorus will be allowed to use its own existing fibre to compete with these outfits as well. Chorus will be paid to take on its competitors – paid by the government with public funds to potentially crush the commercial ventures that are in the market today.

If Chorus is going to use its own fibre assets, it should be required to use other companies’ fibre assets as well on a commercial footing. Otherwise we’re paying to remove competitors from the market and I’m not sure that’s the ideal outcome.

Finally we see Chorus’s marketing budget slashed in half – from a paltry $5m a year to a pointless $2.5m.

Currently Chorus’s efforts in this area have been woeful to put it mildly. Filming a TV commercial in New York to demonstrate the power of the UFB is a bizarre way to spend your money (what on earth does showing art on an electronic bill board in New York have to do fibre in New Zealand?) and the Gigatown campaign has created more noise than it has benefit.

I’d expect to see the government step up and promote its UFB initiative but there’s no sign of that happening. The onus is on the retail service providers to promote the UFB, but of course that ignores the all-important pre-sales role of telling customers what the UFB is all about. Nobody’s selling the sizzle – and the RSPs will only sell their products, naturally – and now we have Chorus to all intents and purposes withdrawing from that marketing campaign.

So what of the other players in this fibre deployment? Will the Local Fibre Companies also renegotiate their contracts? There’s nothing planned but I’d expect to see some of them come to Crown Fibre with a few changes they’d like based on this. I’m sure they also would like to avoid having to re-fibre a building that’s already got decent infrastructure and the like. The ball, apparently, is in their court to do so.

The changes as laid out in the press statement aren’t going to set the world on fire. Sure, they’ll enable Chorus to avoid some stupid costs and to better manage its cash flow, but unless something changes radically we’re not going to see Chorus bring down the price of each connection or increase the speed of the rollout. Northpower Fibre, by way of contrast, will finish years ahead of schedule and do so at a fraction of the cost per premise passed.

I’d rather hoped we’d see a radical overhaul of the way Chorus is doing business. Instead, this feels very much like a re-shuffling of the same cards.

Return on investment

There’s a tension between companies being regulated and the people doing the regulating. This is as it should be – their goals are different and the tools to achieve those goals tend to be at odds with each other.

Companies are required by law to maximise their return on investment. Shareholders are nominal owners of the company and yet have very little power, unless they’re big enough to have a seat on the board or similar. I’m always amused whenever a company claims rousing success with some venture or other based on shareholder approval, most of which is gifted to the CEO or chair by way of proxy votes.

Regulators, on the other hand, are required to do what’s right for the long-term best interests of the customer. That’s often not as straight forward as we customers would like. Issues like passthrough of wholesale savings, demand for investment, even the time it takes to produce a result are all seen as roadblocks on the way to better pricing.

Given that companies don’t like being regulated, those that are often complain about trying to second guess the regulator, about having no certainty in the market. Chorus has certainly cried foul about the lack of certainty with regard to the regulation of its copper line monopoly, although seeking a judicial review of the Commerce Commission’s determination doesn’t exactly endear the company to the industry as a whole.

Consistency is key to a good regulatory regime. It’s the only way companies that are involved in a regulated sector can avoid uncertainty. The regulator should be able to demonstrate the logic that it uses and apply the rules consistently wherever possible.

Which makes Vector’s submission on the UCLL pricing so interesting. (NOTE: the ComCom website does not do well with actual linking. Instead, it operates a one-step removed model that includes breaking the basic tenet of the internet, so rather than linking directly, I have to point you to a page where you must in turn fossick about looking for the submissions you’re after)

Vector, of course, has a lot to do with the regulator in its day job in the electricity sector. It’s not often that Vector comes out and says anything nice about the Commerce Commission – it has the scars to bear of many encounters.

What’s intriguing is that Vector has looked at the Commission’s treatment of Chorus’s profit making in light of the way the Commission treats Vector and others in the electricity sector.

Over there, in (ahem) sparky land, return on investment is heavily regulated. There’s a library-worth of regulation, argument, angry shouting and tears (all in the legal sense of course) and whatever else you might think about the electricity sector (that Max Bradford’s reforms, for example, should be held up as a shining light for how not to regulate a sector), the process itself is as robust as it can be.

By putting Chorus’s public data through the Commission’s “Electricity Distribution Information Disclosure Determination” process from 2012, Vector has worked out that Chorus is seeking a return on investment of between 19% and 23%.

Vector’s return is significantly less – closer to 10% – and the other regulated industries are around the same mark. Chorus hasn’t challenged this in its cross-submission – indeed, it doesn’t mention it at all. Instead, I’m left wondering whether we can use Vector’s figures as a kind of cross-check on just what Chorus is asking for in terms of income.

After all, the role of Chorus’s management is to maximise returns on its investment. It has to argue vigorously for a higher price, regardless of what’s good for the industry or the user.

That’s why an independent regulator is so important, and that’s why TUANZ joined the Copper Tax coalition. We need to get these figures right. Set the price too high and we reward Chorus for being inefficient. We also run the risk of encouraging Telecom to simply unbundle on a massive scale – tens of millions of dollars’ investment in copper at a time when both Telecom and TUANZ would rather see that money spent on fibre and on services that attract customers up the food chain, not down it.

Consistency is important, and I think at the least we will need to compare Chorus’s regulated return with the rest of those regulated entities in New Zealand. Looking around the world you’ll see New Zealand’s wholesale service is at the expensive end of the range. Looking at an ROI of 19-23% I can see why.

Chorus’s costs

Chorus has a few tough decisions to make if yesterday’s financial reporting is anything to go by.

Where to prioritise its spending, where to make cuts and how to manage the regulatory process are all key questions the Chorus senior management will be asking themselves.

First things first, as you know TUANZ disagrees with Chorus on its handling of the regulatory process. The company should have seen the Commerce Commission UBA price point coming and had three years to prepare for it.

Fortunately, after a year of fluster from the government, we’re now back on track with a Final Pricing Principle (FPP) process to determine the costs of both UBA and UCLL components of the wholesale regime.

If I were Chorus I’d ditch the legal action against the Commission’s determination. It’s hard to see how that is anything but a delaying tactic at this point and could very well derail the whole process. Let’s just get on.

The good news is, regulatory issues aside, Chorus seems willing to do just that, focusing on the real heart of the matter – its cost structure.

Chorus has managed to bring the cost of each UFB premise passed to $3000. That’s a staggeringly high figure – in its bid process Chorus was estimating it would cost roughly half of that, and I have it from the LFCs that they pay significantly less per connection on average. This is the real problem and it’s good to see Chorus addressing it head on. Staff levels will have to fall, says CEO Mark Ratcliffe, and the company will have to consider how much and how it invests in copper lines.

This will be difficult for some customers – particularly those who are on the waiting lists for broadband. They may be years away from getting UFB and are hoping for more investment in the copper network to get them on to ADSL or VDSL in the meantime.

Unfortunately, not everyone is going to get copper broadband. Chorus’s main focus is on delivering the UFB and moving customers to that as quickly as possible. I suspect from here on in, it won’t be increasing the foot print of its copper network and will switch to maintenance only for most of us.

I’m in two minds about this. On one hand, customers need broadband today and as it’s now the 21st century we really shouldn’t be talking about people not being connected.

But on the other hand, copper is yesterday’s news and I want everyone (or as near as we can get) on fibre as quickly as possible.

Where Chorus must continue to invest in the copper realm is, of course, that quarter of the population that will never see a fibre connection under current plans. We need to make sure they don’t get left behind and I’m looking to the political parties to tell us what they plan to do about the digital divide.

The second point is Chorus’s ability to make money. As a regulated monopoly, it’s somewhat constrained in this. Chorus says it will be looking at new revenue opportunities and will be working with its customers (the ISPs) to determine what products it can come up with that they’ll actually be interested in buying.

When I first heard that, alarm bells rang. New ways to make money, eh? So you’ll be throttling everyone back to crawling speed and forcing the ISPs to buy bigger and better plans?

Chorus says no. In fact, to quote spokesman Ian Bonnar the company “categorically rules out” going for this so-called nuclear option.

I’m very pleased to hear that because the rumours among ISPs is that this is what was being planned. Certainly until yesterday I hadn’t heard Chorus deny it, rather it wouldn’t rule anything out. Now it has and that’s for the betterment of the industry as a whole.

So where can Chorus reduce its spend? I visited Northpower’s deployment last year and saw an overhead rollout moving swiftly and efficiently. Two-person teams connecting houses to fibre via overhead lines wherever possible. The record stood at just over an hour to connect one property.

We need more of that kind of approach deployed throughout the rest of the UFB network, I think, and it’s well worth looking to the other players to see what they’re doing well and what can be applied elsewhere.

But the single biggest thing that can be done to help Chorus, and indeed all the fibre companies, is to revisit this asinine resource consent process we currently have in place.

Even though this is a government project for the betterment of all New Zealand, even though this is a once-in-a-generation network replacement that will see us right for the rest of the century, the fibre companies have to jump backwards through hoops to get consent from all involved.

It’s foolish, to put it mildly.

Why aren’t we treating this as a replacement for what’s already in place and allow the fibre companies to install without needing all the red tape? Northpower tells me it could double the footprint of its fibre network in Northland if it didn’t have to spend so much on consents, and Chorus and the other LFCs would likewise make a tremendous saving.

That’s a network I’d like to see – perhaps we can whittle down that 25% non-fibre number and solve the digital divide as we go.

One thing is obvious – the day will come when each area is completed and Chorus can switch off the copper network. That needs to be managed and planning should start now. Whangarei will be fully fibred this year – there’s no need for Chorus to continue maintaining a network that is surplus to requirements, yet no thought has been given to Chorus’s requirement to provide the network of last choice. Once fibre is available to all properties in an area, the copper can go. That’s something we need to plan for right now.

FPP Round One: Chorus makes an offer, but it comes with caveats

Chorus’s submission to the Commerce Commission over how to proceed in its Final Pricing Principle (FPP) determination makes for interesting reading.

Chorus has commissioned one of the world’s leading economic agencies – Analysis Mason – to write a report that forms part of its submission. AM is a force not to be trifled with. It has worked for the UK’s Ofcom looking at BT’s own liabilities in this area among other things, and has worked in the New Zealand market for several years writing reports for all sides of the various debates.

Chorus proposes not bothering to model the costs at all.

Rather, it offers to allow the Commission to use its actual costs to build a picture of what a Modern Equivalent Asset (MEA) looks like, and would do so based on its existing copper infrastructure.

That’s an important point to note – the government’s Discussion Document presumed that any MEA would have to be based on the fibre to the home programme, since no telco would roll out copper today.

TUANZ has argued that in fact copper does form a major part of any modern telco network, as would a fixed-wireless offering, but let’s come back to that later.

Chorus’s proposal has some serious merits to it. First, and perhaps best of all, we would see what it actually costs to build and run the very network which we’re talking about. A copper-line based network, in New Zealand, operating today. Chorus would assist the Commission by opening its books just enough for the Commission staff to produce a result. I’m guessing the rest of the industry won’t be allowed such a detailed look – that detail would end up being redacted as being “commercial in confidence” which would make for an interesting debate.

And it’s a lot quicker than building a theoretical model – also something that should appeal to all parties, as having this thing drag on for years is problematic to put it mildly.

But there are downsides to this approach. Not least of these is that Chorus hasn’t always made the smartest decisions when it comes to its costs and that modelling these inefficiencies and ruling them out would have to go by the by. Chorus suggests the expense and time taken to model for these would be hopeless and so it’s an all or nothing approach – you can have the data, but you can’t remove the warts.

AM’s “Working Paper” on how this would all happen suggests making some small adjustments but basically there would be no comparison of an efficient network versus an inefficient one.

AM also suggests that only Chorus’s network would do for this study – no point looking at CallPlus’s experiences in this area because it’s too small a company, with too limited a range of customers and that would skew the model, it says.

That’s interesting because in the conference held last year on all of this, CallPlus pointed out that it sells a product identical to UBA in the market today and does so at less than the Commerce Commission’s draft price which Chorus soundly rejected.

AM would also very much like to ignore the lessons learned from the Canterbury earthquake, namely that putting all your cables underground is a very silly thing to do in a country that can shake itself to bits from time to time. AM suggests that Chorus’s currently model of ducting and tunnelling is the industry ideal, and that any MEA built today would involve extensive digging.

That’s simply not the case. Certainly, the blue rinse set of ladies who lunch do like to talk a good talk when it comes to urban beautification and the need to remove those unsightly poles, but most utility companies will tell you that putting stuff underground is expensive, time consuming and doesn’t add anything to the network’s efficiency. Northpower, for example, is building its fibre network entirely above ground where it can, going so far as to put the electronics on the poles as well as the cables.

While we welcome the suggestion that real-world costs be used, the model requirements are for an efficient network deployment and that avoidable costs should be just that – avoided.

It’s also interesting to note that the AM report rules out using fixed-wireless assets as part of this assessment. The report AM produced is quite damning:

“It is very likely that wireless solutions are also not capable of delivering the expected future average throughput required from fixed broadband connections at an economic level and with current constraints”

says the report. We would beg to disagree – the RBI deployment is not restricted to what the report terms “ultra rural” but is being used to service around 20% of the population. It is a far more efficient approach to delivering broadband to non-urban areas than laying fibre to each property, given the distances and population density involved.

TUANZ would like to see real world figures used. We would like to see prices modelled on an aerial deployment, not a costly underground deployment, and would like to see some comparison figures produced – potentially on the experiences of the LFCs or CallPlus as well as the RBI. By comparing and contrasting with these deployments, we should build up a picture of both what real-world costs actually look like and what costs can and should be avoided.

Chorus cannot expect the industry – and subsequently the users – to pay for its inefficiencies. This process is about determining what an efficient network operator would do, not one that has every reason to ratchet up the price.


EDIT: The Commerce Commission has now published the full raft of submissions.

The year ahead

Looking ahead, this year is going to be quite a busy one in terms of telecommunications, so I hope you all had a good rest of the new year break.

Normally I head off to the Coromandel to a secret location where I pitch a tent, make do without running water or electricity and where my phone (and everyone else’s) simply fails to find a signal.

This is fantastic because it means I am completely cut off from my normal life and rest is guaranteed. We kayak, we swim, we eat well, and while the kids can run around all night if they want, I go to bed and rise with the sun.

It’s a chance to switch off, to renew my batteries (as it were) and to do something completely removed from my normal existence and I love it.

But if I had to live like that every day, I’d go nuts. Running water and electricity are pretty key, but as the owners of the farm where I stay have pointed out, the need for decent telecommunications is critical.

They have a 15 year old son who can’t call his friends, can’t play games, can’t do any homework, can’t read newspapers or go online in any way shape or form for the entire time he’s at home. The exchange is too far away for DSL to work well and besides, the cabinet is full. There’s no cellphone signal from any provider and oddly not a single wireless ISP operates on the north eastern side of the Coromandel. Why? I have no idea.

This summer has been the last straw for him and he’s declared that as soon as he’s able he’ll be off to the city or at least to an internet café that can let him connect to the world.

It’s not just him – all of rural New Zealand faces this challenge and we urbanites face it with them. If we lose the rural communities we lose so much of what makes New Zealand unique. It’s not just a cultural thing, it’s the basis for our entire economy as well. Boost our farmers’ productivity by a couple of percent and we’ll all be better off.  Reduce their ability to compete (as we’re surely doing for those that don’t have access) and the inverse will also be true.

Rural broadband must be a key priority for the year ahead. However, the key component of delivering such connectivity – spectrum – is already being sorely tested.

Both Vodafone and Telecom are fighting over the remaining pair of 5MHz spectrum in the 700MHz range and, if the rumours are to be believed, are already bidding more for that pair than both bid for the 15MHz blocks they’ve already bought. Why? Because the government has decreed that the remaining block must be sold off and neither company can afford to allow the other to win, hence the price war.

This is ridiculous.

Both companies already have more than enough 700MHz spectrum and neither particularly wanted to bid for the last block.

Both companies have plenty of spectrum in the sub-1000MHz range that can be re-purposed for future network technologies and which could be readily deployed in rural New Zealand but because of the government’s greed and short-sightedness (there’s really no other way to look at it), they’re forced to spend money on a piece of paper instead of on rural cellsites.

The Commerce Commission has to grant permission for the winner to have so much spectrum so I have high hopes it’ll do the right thing and refuse to give the go-ahead.  All three telcos will be relieved if that’s the outcome – Telecom, 2Degrees and Vodafone – because the alternative is one player wins the 4G battle but at such a huge cost.

Which brings us to the question of government and the upcoming election. I’m told the likely date is November but it’s up to the Prime Minister to decide, which means it could be earlier if he sees an advantage to going sooner rather than later.

And there may well be an advantage in that. Currently Labour have yet to announce many of its policies and are lagging behind in the polls. The Greens have always had a strong ICT policy (its views on cellphones and cellsites notwithstanding) and the other minor parties are starting to display a keen interest, possibly as a result of the Chorus debacle.

And then there’s Kim Dot Com and the Internet Party.

Putting aside personality for a moment, I’ve long wondered why we don’t have a tech-focused party. MMP lends itself to such issue-led parties and I’m surprised we haven’t seen more of them. The Greens are a perfect example: why not ICT as well?

The question of course making the numbers will be determined by the policies of the Internet Party and we have yet to see those, but I am heartened by any party that raises the profile of ICT issues and if nothing else, the other politicians will have to improve their understanding of ICT to compete and that’s no bad thing.

The final issue on the table must be our lack of international connectivity. I have high hopes that 2014 will see an end to this idea that we are fine and that another cable isn’t needed. One of the various projects has to get off the ground this year and I hope it will see us connected to the US rather than Australia. If we’re to build an ICT industry in New Zealand to rival dairy farming we need to have that connection to the US – anything less will see us become an offshoot of Australia and we might as well give up our sovereignty at that point and become a second Tasmania.

What are the other issues you’d like to see on the agenda this year? You’ll note I haven’t included Chorus and there’s a reason for that. The problem and the resolution lie within Chorus itself and it’s up to the company now to figure out how to complete its contractual obligations. If it can’t, then no doubt we’ll talk more but for now the ball is firmly in Chorus’s court and I trust there it will remain until the company comes to its senses.

MEDIA RELEASE: EY report shows no need for copper tax



14 DECEMBER 2013


Today’s EY Australia report vindicates the Coalition for Fair Internet Pricing’s view that neither a copper tax nor a taxpayer bailout is necessary to resolve the ultra-fast broadband (UFB) issue.

“This report is good news,” a spokesman for the coalition, Paul Brislen, also chief executive of the Telecommunications Users Association of New Zealand (TUANZ), said today.

“It proves that the government’s flagship UFB initiative can be built on time and within budget with a straightforward capital raising – and without a copper tax, barmy ideas like slowing broadband speeds to dial up, or any other old-fashioned state interventions or taxpayer bailouts.

“The report indicates that a capital raising by Chorus Ltd of around $500 million would solve all alleged problems with building the UFB after new fair prices for copper broadband and voice services come into force on 1 December 2014.

“Ms Adams is to be commended for commissioning this report and releasing it with plenty of time before the NZX and ASX open on Monday.

“It is the first solid, independent information on Chorus’s financial situation to be made available since the Commerce Commission announced last December the new fair prices it had determined under Steven Joyce’s Telecommunications Amendment Act 2011.”

Mr Brislen said the coalition would accept for the time being Chorus’s claims that the new fair copper prices would reduce its monopoly revenue by $1.07 billion through to 2020, although it remained sceptical the impact was so high.

He noted that Prime Minister John Key had previously rubbished early estimates the impact could be as high as $600 million and economists Covec had calculated the value of the copper tax to be no more than $449 million between 1 January 2015 and 31 December 2019.

EY Australia makes clear in its report it simply accepted Chorus’s claims of a $1.07 billion funding gap.

“The coalition will be studying these numbers more carefully in the days ahead, but even if the shortfall is as much as Chorus now claims, EY Australia says that much of it can be addressed through changes to dividend policies and debt headroom,” he said.

“Our initial view is that were Chorus to raise around $500 million in new equity, it could fill its alleged funding gap without recourse to the more barmy ideas to enhance revenue, such as reducing broadband speeds to that of the old dial-up services.

“Especially in the context of the booming New Zealand economy next year, raising $500 million in new equity for what is a growth stock is undoubtedly doable.”

Mr Brislen said the report not only vindicated the coalition’s arguments that a copper tax was unnecessary but also Mr Joyce’s landmark Telecommunications Amendment Act 2011, the Commerce Commission’s implementation of that Act and Ms Adams’ decision to commission EY Australia to review Chorus.

“The government has no stronger supporter of its UFB initiative than the Coalition for Fair Internet Pricing,” Mr Brislen said.

“We look forward to working with the government to play whatever constructive role we can in fast-tracking both the building and take up of the new UFB.”