TUANZ welcomes Vodafone’s offer (but does Big Red understand what it’s saying?)

I think it’s great that Vodafone has offered to let us use the cable network it got from TelstraClear as part of the UFB build. Just think of the cost savings it would deliver to Chorus, and of course Chorus would be freed up from working in Wellington and would be able to fibre up my house sooner rather than later.


But I wonder if Vodafone has worked through all the ramifications of its offer, not least of which is that the UFB contracts were awarded on the basis that the winners have no retail business. Vodafone will, presumably, have to structurally separate to take up the mantle of UFB provider.

It would have to spin off its cable and fixed network assets into a separate business or, depending on which way you look at it, sell off its retail arm and mobile phone network. Then the fixed line business (let’s call it “Saturn” because that has a nice ring about it) would be free to pitch for the UFB business.

Interesting times.

Putting aside that approach, Vodafone’s suggestion does raise a very interesting question: why is Chorus overbuilding networks at all?

In the Hawkes Bay, Unison Fibre is an offshoot of the power company and has an extensive fibre network around the main centres. Yet Chorus has overbuilt it street by street.

In Nelson, I attended the opening of the UFB network build with the minister and the mayors of the region. The mayors were forced to point out to the minister that in fact the UFB wasn’t a bright and shiny new toy for them to play with, that they’d had fibre in the region for a decade or more and that a community initiative had built The Loop long before central government came knocking. Again, Chorus has overbuilt the network already in place.

Why is it that we’re seeing new fibre laid side by side with existing fibre (and yes, with existing cable) when Chorus should be working with these partners rather than excluding them? The UFB network deployment doesn’t require Chorus to build every kilometre of fibre in its region, but rather to provide a service at a certain service level. So why overbuild when there are places that don’t even have fibre?

I’m all in favour of infrastructure based competition, but not when there are still areas that don’t have access at all. Rather, we should build out the network and then see about building competing technologies.

I would hope someone at Crown Fibre Holdings is making this suggestion to Chorus right now, because it still has a lot of Auckland and Wellington to build and plenty of that already has fibre owned by FX Networks, CityLink and even Vodafone and Telecom. Leasing capacity is a lot cheaper than building, but of course Chorus wouldn’t then be able to reap the rewards of owning the infrastructure for the next hundred years.

It also raises another key question, that probably should have been asked before the “fibre to the home” project began. Should we have defined the technology we wanted or should we instead have demanded a certain level of service and been technology neutral?

I for one don’t care how the hole in the wall connects me to the world, so long as it’s blisteringly fast. If it’s copper or fibre or fixed wireless or 4G or bean cans on string, I really don’t mind so long as I get high speed, low latency and a consistent service.

A technology neutral approach would mean that Vodafone’s offer could be considered and that the model we are using for rural New Zealand would be applied to the entire country. We’d have more ultra fast broadband service offerings and more competition, and that’s not a bad thing. As it stands, however, we’re wedded to fibre and unfortunately cable isn’t fibre any more than copper is. 

I think Vodafone would be unwilling to structurally separate the company in order to deliver UFB over its cable network, but I do think Chorus and Crown Fibre Holdings need to take a close look at what’s already in the ground and whether or not UFB can be delivered over existing infrastructure. 

Having your cake and eating it too (and creating a monopoly along the way)

Lost in the noise of the Telecommunications Act Review
discussion document
is a rather alarming paragraph about Chorus’s copper lines.

The review usurps the Commerce Commission’s role as
r and gives the job to the minister on the basis that the minister
wants the fibre uptake to be successful.

In order for the fibre rollout to be successful it has to
have lots of users signing up for it. Fair enough – I agree entirely with the
outcome, just not with the process by which we’re being pushed down that path.

The minister argues that in order for customers to move to
fibre the price of copper lines can’t be dramatically lower than the price of
fibre, otherwise nobody will move.

I disagree – fibre and copper aren’t the same product and
while my copper line might be adequate for my use today, by the end of this
year it’ll be straining at the edges and by the end of next year it’ll be intolerably

That’s because my kids are now both of an age where they
have serious homework and that homework is delivered online. As soon as they
get home from school they want to use the computer. My wife uses that downtime
to catch up on last night’s Shortland Street and so she too is using my
internet connection.

Copper barely copes with this. As it always has been, user
migration is dependent on there being a reason to move and content is that
reason. Fibre is not the same product as copper.

But let’s put that aside for the moment. Let’s assume the
minister’s goal is to have as many customers as possible moving to fibre and
that in order to do this we must artificially mark up the price of a copper

The discussion document lays it out in just these terms. It
describes the fibre roll out as a “once-in-a-generation” upgrade and says the
real benefits to New Zealand come from those applications that use UFB speeds.
It goes so far as to quote the Alcatel-Lucent report that suggests economic
benefits of nearly $33bn over a 20-year period.

Clearly then, we need to usher users over to the fibre world
as quickly as possible for the benefit of the economy as a whole.

All of which makes me wonder why the minister is so keen to
stop that happening in those parts of the country where Chorus isn’t building
the fibre network.

Chorus has the lion’s share of the network build, but
Northpower is rolling out fibre in Northland, UltraFast Fibre is doing it in
the Waikato, Bay of Plenty region and Enable is doing its work in Christchurch.

All three Local Fibre Companies (LFCs) are ahead of
schedule. All three expect to finish sooner rather than later and all three are
signing up more customers than the average sign-up rate would suggest.

Yet the minister makes it clear in her discussion document
that Chorus will be allowed to pocket price its copper wholesale service to
compete for those customers who live outside its fibre region.

“Chorus can set wholesale prices below the regulated price
cap to match competition from fibre in those areas, if necessary to compete
effectively with the LFCs.”

We’ve already seen Chorus overbuild existing fibre networks
such as The Loop in Nelson and Inspire.Net in Palmerston North, and now it gets
to use its existing network to compete for customers against the government’s
fibre network around the country.

Surely if the drive to move to fibre is so great that Chorus
must be given a leg-up in terms of its copper pricing, the same rule should
apply in favour of the LFCs and Chorus not be allowed to compete by reducing
its copper prices?

And conversely, if it’s OK for Chorus to reduce its price in
these areas, why is it not OK for the rest of the country as well?

Don’t forget, the Telecommunications Act explicitly allows
Chorus to buy up the three smaller LFCs without triggering the Commerce
Commission’s anti-monopoly alarm. The Commission is barred from investigating
any such purchase on the grounds of lessening competition by law.

I can picture a scenario whereby Chorus depresses the market
for fibre in the three LFCs’ home territories while keeping copper prices high
for the rest of us. Once the LFCs start to struggle, Chorus can buy them up for
a song and before you know it we’ll have one network operator for the country
as a whole.

As we said during the ten-year regulatory holiday debate, we’ve
just spent a decade ensuring that one network operator play nicely with the
rest of the market, do we really want to create another monopoly asset with no
regulatory oversight?


Overbuilding networks is not on

Let’s talk about overbuilding of networks.

Several years ago I visited the telco regulator in Hong
Kong. His biggest challenge was keeping out of the way of telcos, because over
there the market really does rule the roost. Why? Because with six or seven
copper networks, three or four fibre networks, six or seven 3G networks and at
least four proposed LTE networks, there was plenty of competition at the most
basic level.

Overbuilding is good.

However, as he said to me at the time, that’s fine once you’ve
got build out to every customer. Prior to that, overbuild is a waste of time
and resources.

New Zealand is not in that situation. We don’t have a
ubiquitous network built out to cover every building or every customer. We don’t
have competition at the lowest level, and indeed the government’s decision to
fund what are, in effect, four regional monopolies would suggest there’s little
chance we’ll ever have the population to support multiple networks overbuilding
each other. With only four million customers (in a variety of guises) the costs
far outweigh the benefits.

Except that we are already overbuilding.

In central Auckland I have my pick of fibre providers for
business grade, point to point fibre. There’s FX Networks, TelstraClear fibre
(now owned by Vodafone), Vector and of course Chorus to name the first four
that come to mind.

In Wellington there’s CityLink as well, plus there are any
number of other providers.

They’re typically not offering the same kind of fibre
service that the Ultra Fast Broadband (UFB) project will build. It’s very fast,
it’s uncontended (that is, it isn’t shared in the way the UFB’s G-PON network
will be shared) and it’s expensive as a result.

For most CBD dwellers (I’m thinking businesses here, not
residential) the move to UFB will be a cost-reduction move that means more
contention for a lesser charge. They’ll figure out what that looks like in
terms of their own risk profiles and everyone will get along.

However, there are pockets of fibre deployment that are
already in service and which Chorus and the LFCs should be taking into
consideration as they build out the UFB.

Nelson, for example, has had The Loop for around a decade
now, and at the launch of the Chorus UFB deployment the mayors of both Tasman
and Nelson were at great pains to ensure everyone knew about it. It certainly
came as something of a surprise to the Minister whose speech revolved around
bringing the future to a corner of the South Island. We’ve got the future
already, Minister, they told her.

The explanation from Crown Fibre and Chorus at that point
was that the UFB requirements wouldn’t be met by the fibre network in Nelson
but that hopefully the UFB pricing would help reduce the cost of The Loop’s
fibre to its customers as well. Competition is good and healthy, but there’s no
overbuilding going on, I was told.

The Loop tells me its prices are already lower than the UFB
prices, and that yes in fact overbuild is going on.

Inspire.Net is another ISP that’s been laying fibre for many
years in the lower North Island. Because it’s not a national provider,
Inspire.Net wasn’t considered for the UFB or RBI deployments, but it already
has a large tract of the country fibred up and operating today.

Surely there won’t be overbuilding going on there, right?

Sadly, that’s not the case. UFB fibre is being deployed in
Palmerston North right over the top of existing Inspire.Net fibre and alongside
TelstraClear/Vodafone fibre. The UFB and RBI fibre is required to be deployed
to schools in and around the country so they’ve gone so far as to put a pit
outside a school which already has fibre delivered by one of the existing
operators. This despite Chorus telling an audience in Whanganui that fibre won’t
be deployed to the farms because the cost of putting a pit in and breaking out
the fibre is just too expensive, despite promising just that a year ago.

The UFB project is supposed to provide fibre to 75% of the
population. Chorus has won the lion’s share of the project and is claiming to
be overspending to the tune of around $400m. Something’s got to give, and
apparently that pressure means the government will run over the top of the
Commerce Commission decisions around copper pricing so as to make sure Chorus
doesn’t lose any more cash.

I have an idea. How about we not overbuild existing
networks. How about instead of trying to squash these smaller players we
require the UFB fibre network companies to work with existing fibre operators
and so avoid spending money to deliver a second or even third fibre network to
these places where existing services already operate.

Instead, why not lease capacity from these existing network
operators? Why not work with the other network providers, instead of
overbuilding them – at least until we have full coverage.

Chorus, UltraFast, Northpower and Enable could then get on
with building fibre to new parts of the country, places where there is no fibre
today and where new customers will be able to connect up. It will cost less to
deploy and we’ll save Chorus its $400m, or a goodly chunk of it, without having
to favour one operator over another.

Once we have the whole country covered we certainly can look
at overbuilding. In the long run I’d be more than happy for
infrastructure-based competition to take off. But publicly-funded network
deployments should not be used as a way of quashing competition and certainly
not at the expense of operators who have already put in the long hours and hard
yards delivering the service. I don’t want my money being spent on that – quite
the opposite.