Get secret pricing deals off the table – Consumer, InternetNZ, TUANZ

“Trying to do a deal on prices would undermine the important role an independent regulator has to play in setting them.”

“Customers are poorly served by the telecommunications industry working together in secret to fix the price of wholesale broadband.”
Media release – 13 July 2013

Consumer, InternetNZ and the Telecommunications Users Association responded today to a report in the Dominion Post that the telecommunications industry was seeking to negotiate a price for the wholesale copper broadband service known as UBA.
A Commerce Commission conference to help determine the regulated price of that service concludes in Wellington today, with the telco industry negotiations understood to seek to influence a forthcoming discussion paper on a regulatory review of the Telco Act announced by Communications Minister Amy Adams in February.

TUANZ CEO Paul Brislen says the best way to resolve the issue of pricing rules for a monopoly service like UBA is through open and transparent discussion. “If the report in today’s paper is accurate, it seems that some in the industry would prefer to see a deal done in private, and without the scrutiny of users,” he says.

InternetNZ Acting Chief Executive Jordan Carter says “Industry discussion and input on the policy framework and to help inform the regulatory review is a good thing, because government decisions should be well informed”.
Consumer CEO Sue Chetwin says “A line is crossed if specific prices are being discussed – that moves the matter from an intelligent debate about the best possible policy framework, to what looks like a stitch-up – or worse, a cartel”.
These kinds of back room deals are rarely good for consumers and it puts us in the awful position of the industry sitting down together to set pricing without reference to either customers or to the regulator, say the three Chief Executives.

None of our organisations are in the loop with these conversations, and none of us want to be. We won’t talk about prices, and neither should the industry: that’s a job for the Commerce Commission. We will make our points about the review in public. We urge the industry to take the same view.

“Setting the rules and setting the prices are two different jobs. The review is about reviewing the pricing rules. The regulator has the job of setting the prices. Trying to do a deal on prices would undermine the important role an independent regulator has to play in setting them. Without that protection, consumers are unlikely to get a fair deal,” the CEOs conclude.

Terms and Conditions apply

What would you like your telco to tell you about your
broadband connection?

I ask because the TCF is currently reaching the end of a
lengthy process to figure out what to put on advertising and point of sale
material (among other places) in order to help customers compare like with

Currently we talk about price, data capacity and sometimes
speed – although not specifically as the Commerce Commission has always
insisted that if you advertise a product as being able to do something, that
product should be able to do just that. Tricky thing, that, when you’re talking
about broadband speeds on a copper network.

There are plenty of other metrics that customers have asked
about over the years. Contention ratio is one – how many other people will I be
sharing this connection with?  Is it 20:1
or 50:1 or worse? What about committed information rates (CIR) and maximum
speed? What about international capacity – will I find myself unable to connect
to my favourite international site because the ISP’s international link is

Then there are what I think of as the “asterisk conditions”.
You know the ones – “reserve the right to manage the service” and “acceptable
use policy may be applied” and possibly even “we don’t let you use your connection
for just anything, you know”.

What would you like to see listed? We can’t have an inexhaustible
list – the model we’re working to is the ticket on display in a used-car’s
window on the lot – but I’d like to hear from members and others about what
would be of use.


The government is going to update the Telecommunications Interception Act which came into effect in 2004.

Nearly a decade on it’s a good idea to review these things and to make sure we have a process that works, that the need is still the same, that the players involved are still doing the same things in the same way.

The Act allows the police, or SIS or GCSB, to call on the telcos for information about customers. Typically this involves a search warrant or similar legal document made out about a particular customer’s account. Telcos can then intercept TXT messages or phone calls or data connections. They can track email trails, they can locate cellphones using GPS or cellsite triangulation. They can access your communications.

Typically the telcos take this kind of intrusion very seriously indeed. They have teams that handle these enquiries, they move with urgency and they get the job done.

(Incidentally, this is partly why the copyright notices cost $25 each – the same team that considers whether or not a search warrant is valid will also look at a copyright infringement notice because both documents are legally challenging and because they involve infringing on a customer’s privacy to a huge degree. It’s not as simple as looking up the records for an IP address and sending on the notice.)

The government says the Act needs updating. It says there are two arms to this legislation – interception and network security.

Interception seems to me, at any rate, to be working well. The telcos respond quickly (I’ve not heard of a telco not responding in a timely fashion) but won’t have a bar of the government agencies taking shortcuts. For a while there was talk of the police faxing through warrants rather than showing up. That was deemed unacceptable pretty sharpishly and I haven’t heard anything similar since then.

Network security, likewise, works well. The GCSB stays out of the way and the telcos roll out state of the art deployments that should be as secure as they can be. Ironically, the Act requires the telcos make their networks hackable – that is, the Act itself is a single point of weakness, albeit one tucked away inside the networks’ operation centres. Left to their own devices, the telcos wouldn’t be willing to entertain any question about their security capabilities. It’s a selling point, it’s basic hygiene and it’s vital to their on-going commercial role.

So what needs fixing?

Well, since 2004 the telco world has changed. No longer do we buy all our services from our telcos. Instead we buy a pipe and get our services from other providers.

Currently these over the top providers (OTT) offer TXT, email and data-centric comms but shortly I’m sure it’ll be voice as well (think Viber, Skype and the like). These services show up to the network operators as bits of data, encrypted by a third party player, sent from one device to another. They have little visibility of what the content is (they can make an educated guess of course – certain services use certain ports, for example) and they certainly can’t crack that encryption to see what’s going on.

Over the top providers don’t always need the telcos’ support to operate, so it makes it very difficult for the telcos to capture this data on behalf of agencies which might, in say three months’ time or a year or more, need to access it.

The new Bill will, apparently, require the telcos to work closely with the GCSB on network security.

I wonder what that means. Will the telcos (private, commercial entities) be required to do things the way the GCSB wants? Will they be required to build things in to their networks that they might not want to include? Things that give them no commercial benefit?

Secondly, I wonder what the enforcement protocols are all about. Are the telcos moving so slowly they need a kick in the pants? What kind of enforcement are we talking about – monetary? Something else? Will we need to start registering telcos in some formal manner so we can revoke that registration should they not fall into line?

Will we be introducing a regime that forces telcos to somehow crack the security of Microsoft, of Google, of Apple? How will that fly with these companies? How enforceable is that from New Zealand?

And if we think about it, aren’t these OTT providers telcos in and of themselves? Don’t we consider Microsoft, for example, to be a telco? It owns Skype – clearly the world’s biggest telco – and it sells OTT services that used to be the purview of the telcos. Surely our definition of what a telco is needs to be updated?

Let’s take Microsoft’s Office 365 as an example. If you buy it from Dick Smith, you get a box with a code and away you go to download and use the service. If you buy it online from Microsoft itself they don’t bother with the box, but the product is the same.

Buy it from a telco (a Gen-i or a system integrator for example) and it’s a telco service and will be governed by the Interception Act. Will that not drive customers to avoid the telcos? Will that not cost the telcos in terms of both lost sales and implementation costs?

The danger is of course that all this cost will be dumped on the telcos. There’s no commercial gain to the telcos in doing any of this – the storage needed, the interception gear required, the teams they’ll have to pay to make it all work – so that cost will be passed on to the users.

On top of that, we run the risk of trying to do the impossible. If a government says simply “make it so” and steps back, we could see telcos being penalised for not hacking Gmail accounts. Is that what we need? Is that going to do anyone any good at all?

Without knowing what the problem is the government wants to solve, it’s rather tricky to understand where this is all going. All of the above is based on the Minister’s press release, which is rather brief. The Bill itself will be available next month and TUANZ will be taking a close look at the detail. It’s important we get this right because if we get it wrong the consequences could be quite miserable.