Managing Expectations

I’m writing this from the Commerce Commission conference into the cost of wholesale services delivered by Chorus.

This service is regulated as Chorus is a monopoly provider. It is really the only provider of copper lines in the country and as a monopoly it is regulated accordingly.

The pricing principle underlining the Commerce Commission’s approach has changed. In 2010 a new Telco Act was introduced that foresaw the split of Telecom into Telecom and Chorus. As part of that split, the government realised it could no longer rely on a “retail minus” pricing model as Chorus would no longer have any retail products. Instead, the Telco Act says the Commission must move to a “cost plus” model. That is, instead of taking the retail prices in the market and taking off a regulated percentage to deliver a wholesale price point, the Commission would look at the price of delivering the service at the base level and add a margin to that.

You may remember the debate around the introduction of the new Telco Act. It focused almost entirely on the ten-year regulatory holiday the government slipped in to the Supplementary Order Paper that came with the bill. Indeed, the SOP was larger than the bill itself and led to many thousands of words being written by journalists around the country on this unusual approach.

As the debate ground on, with little sign of victory for those of us that supported the Commerce Commission’s role and the need for an independent regulator, the one redeeming feature of the bill was this decision to move to a cost-plus model.

Eventually we won the day with regard to the regulatory holiday. Backroom political machinations saw the government drop the clause, although the level of political interference in the regulatory regime since then has been alarming, to put it mildly.

All that happened before Telecom split in two. Indeed, all this took place before Chorus was incorporated and floated on the stock exchange. It should have been no surprise to anyone, least of all Chorus or its shareholders – especially given the inclusion of a three year delay because of the impact this change to the pricing model would have on both Telecom and Chorus.

We expected a major drop in wholesale price. Telecom CEO Simon Moutter says he also expected a similar drop and today we heard from CallPlus’s Graham Walmsley about his experience installing copper equipment and selling as a wholesale player to ISPs. Graham says his experience is that the UBA draft price is far too high and that he is selling a product that includes voice capability at a price point that is lower than the draft price today.

For years, Telecom managed to keep the price of wholesale services high by managing its suite of retail products so as to retain one or two highly-priced products. That way the “wholesale” price was artificially high.

As I write we’re hearing from economists who (with a straight face) are suggesting they didn’t expect any drop in terms of price with the move from retail minus to cost plus. They’re earning their money today.

If anyone at Chorus, or at any of its investors, was caught by surprise by the drop in price, they need to find a new line of work. It was obvious even to a non-economist, non-lawyer like me.

The solution for Chorus is simple. Any price drop can be offset by launching other products that aren’t regulated and which offer a higher return on its investment. Failing that, it should take a close look at its dividend to shareholders which currently sits at 25 cents per share.

More to follow.