Will Telecom unbundle?

The Ernst & Young Australia report into Chorus is not a review of Chorus’s financial position, despite some media reports that would suggest that’s what’s happening. Rather it’s a review of the impact the Commerce Commission’s UBA and UCLL determinations will have on “key Chorus financial indicators”.

The short answer is, naturally enough, yes it will.

I know of no business, regulated or otherwise, that wouldn’t have some impact with a reduction in its incoming revenue.

On top of that, the review is explicitly barred from looking at Chorus’s own “strategic choices” especially those that “may have led to higher capital expenditure than initially forecast.”

That’s quite a limiting factor – especially if you think that Chorus’s problem is largely nothing to do with the Commission’s determination but rather is a matter of cost blow-outs in the rollout itself.

So what will the review look at, because without all of that it’s going to be hard to come up with any result beyond “OMG, the ComCom is to blame”.

One of the main factors in the report will have to be the counter-factual Ernst and Young comes up with.

The counter-factual is the “what if?” scenario. What would have happened if the Commerce Commission hadn’t reduced the price? With the counter-factual to hand, we’ll be able to determine the net difference in pricing regimes.

Incidentally, the government isn’t waiting for this and has already directed Crown Fibre and Chorus to sit down together to renegotiate the UFB deal.

That may be the right thing to do at this point. I’m hard pressed to support yet another closed-door secret back room deal (they tend to have severe unintended consequences for the industry and the users, to put it mildly) but given the government isn’t looking to reduce its requirements or increase the money being paid out, I presume the discussions will revolve around payment schedules, bank guarantees and the like.

I trust any such agreement comes with severe caveats around both the Final Pricing Principle review and the high court legal action Chorus is taking, not to mention certain performance criteria and a new dividend policy, but that’s just me.

Let’s look at the counter-factual and the elephant in the room that nobody has mentioned.

On December 14 next year, Telecom will be allowed to unbundle Chorus’s network.

(EDIT: An earlier version of this post said Telecom could unbundle at the end of the year)

As part of the separation agreement, Telecom has been excluded from being able to unbundle Chorus’s network.

Telecom retains the lion’s share of the fixed line broadband market and the belief was that Telecom would be able to sweep in, unbundle on a massive scale and undermine Chorus’s ability to earn any money from the UBA component of its copper network.

The issue of whether Telecom wants to unbundle or not remains a key consideration for both Ernst and Young and Chorus.

If the UBA price is too high, Telecom will spend the money and unbundle, dramatically cutting Chorus’s earnings. Never mind the impact of the Commission’s determination, if Telecom took its 50% market share to an unbundled service, Chorus would lose everything.

Telecom doesn’t necessarily want to blow $50m or more on the copper network when it’s gearing up to fight a fibre war. It would rather spend its money on content and services that drive customers to the fibre network and reap its rewards in the longer run.

The question for Ernst & Young is: how high is too high? At what point would Telecom have moved to unbundle? It will have to work that out to produce a counter-factual that actually makes sense. If it just takes the existing regime and compares that with the new UBA price, it will have failed in its mission to provide a comparable counter-factual because despite the rhetoric from both Chorus and the government, there’s no going back to the old numbers.

The retail-minus model has always produced results that mean New Zealanders pay too much for broadband. Moving to a cost-based model was always going to be a shock to the system but nothing like the shock that could still come from half the market moving to an unbundled provider.

The report is due out shortly and we’ll be able to see what E&Y make of all this. Hopefully the negotiations between Crown Fibre and Chorus will result in an amicable agreement and we can put this sorry year behind us and get on with rolling out the future in a more rational, sober way.

Unbundling – the elephant in the room

Ten years ago I wrote dozens of stories about unbundling.

Unbundling was seen by everyone (except Telecom and some of
its financial industry chums) as the panacea to the problem of competition in
the New Zealand landline market.

Basically, wholesale access just wasn’t working and without
the added pressure of unbundling, there was little chance of bringing the price
of broadband down.

Financial advisors were aghast at the idea. How dare you
tinker with the country’s leading stock, they said. I got into a heated
argument with the head of the Shareholders Association who couldn’t see the impact
that high broadband prices were having on every other business in the land.

Eventually we got unbundling. Competitors were welcome to
put their equipment in Telecom’s exchanges and offer their own services over
Telecom’s lines.

I attended the launch at the Ponsonby exchange and it felt
good after discussing it for so long. Finally, we would see the market open up
to competition at its most basic. Finally, we would see differentiated products
and services  and ISPs would be able to
sell me a symmetrical service, or a VDSL service, or one with a terabyte of
data if they wanted. No more “any colour so long as it’s Telecom approved”.

I’m using an unbundled connection to deliver this copy
today. It’s markedly faster than the wholesale equivalent I had before and its
variability is a lot less random. Instead of micro-outages and slowdowns all
day long I get a consistent, quality connection – albeit at ADSL2+ speeds.

However, I’m one of very few customers. Within days of the
launch at the Ponsonby exchange, Telecom announced the closure of most of its
exchanges and the deployment of cabinets deep into the network. It was a cold
and cynical move extremely well played which simultaneously offered some
customers with better speeds (Point Chevalier in Auckland, for example) while strangling
competition in its infancy.

The economics of unbundling dozens of lines in a cabinet are
a lot harder than unbundling thousands of lines in an exchange. Telecom knew
this and by cabinetising its network it denied roughly half of the market to
its ISP rivals.

All of which should be ancient history but is suddenly
extremely important again.

Post de-merger Telecom is now on the countdown to being able
to unbundle that same network, now owned by Chorus and that’s proving to be a
major bargaining chip in the fight over Chorus’s wholesale pricing.

As part of the Telco Act introduced in 2011, Telecom isn’t
allowed to unbundle until the end of next year. Not coincidentally, that’s in the
same time frame that Chorus will be required to move from “retail minus”
pricing to “cost plus” pricing for its wholesale service.

Chorus has had warning that this was coming since before it
was incorporated.  It’s had a three year
delay built in to this change to allow it time to prepare itself, according to
the regulatory impact statement prepared by officials on the Telco Act. Even
its own prospectus signals the problem that the move will present for the

Chorus is, however, hell bent on making sure the price doesn’t
drop precipitously.  This is entirely
proper – Chorus is an incorporated company and has shareholders to consider. It
must by law maximise their return on investment and if that means standing up
at a Commerce Commission hearing and saying with a straight face that it doesn’t
see why a move to cost based pricing will result in much of a change to its
price, then so be it.

Unbundling is, however, the elephant in the room.

If Chorus convinces the Commerce Commission or indeed the
Minister that the move to cost-based pricing is absurd and that the price of wholesale
broadband should remain high, then that gives Telecom the trigger it needs to
unbundle the network.

Telecom has roughly 55% market share of all broadband
services and if it jumped into the unbundling market, it would significantly
impact on Chorus’s revenue stream.

At the Commission’s conference, Telecom said it doesn’t want
to unbundle. That wouldn’t be its first choice because the cost would be quite
high and that money should be better spent on fibre services. But, if Chorus
keeps its wholesale price where it is today, Telecom will have no choice but to
consider it.

That should make Chorus’s blood run cold. If Telecom
unbundles, it joins Vodafone, CallPlus and Orcon as both the largest buyers of
wholesale service and largest unbundlers of the copper network.

Ten years ago I’d have thought that was a good thing. Today,
staring as we are down the barrel of a fibre deployment, it’s a complete waste
of everyone’s money.

Ten years ago it would have made a world of difference to
the competitive landscape. Today, it’s throwing money away on an outdated
technology. Yet that’s precisely what will happen if Chorus is successful in
its mission to keep the wholesale rate high. Ultimately it will be
counter-productive and result in less money being spent on fibre services and
an entrenched ISP market that has invested heavily in copper. That may well
delay the retail ISPs’ move into the fibre world at a time when it will be
critical that we all move as quickly as possible.

Looking back on unbundling it hasn’t delivered the hoped for
benefits. The old Telecom did a tremendous job of keeping competition at bay
for as long as possible and then hacking it off at the knees once it was
allowed in. If we’d had access to unbundled capability when we should have the
landscape would be quite different today. It was an opportunity that we missed
because of a world view that said we have one strong telco and that’s all we

If that sounds familiar, it should.


4G wars

Telecom has announced it’s launching its LTE network in
October and will steadily roll out services throughout the country using Huawei

There are several aspects to this that are worth discussing.
The impending 4G war with Vodafone – data caps and the $10/month premium charge
that Vodafone adds on your bill for 4G are all up in the air now.

Then there’s the choice of Huawei over incumbent
Alcatel-Lucent which while not surprising is still quite telling.
Alcatel-Lucent will continue to manage the 3G network (Telecom’s much vaunted “faster
in more places” XT network that famously hit a wall at high speed and caused
Telecom no end of embarrassment and not a small amount of money) but basically
this is the end of the line for ALU’s relationship with Telecom. I put that
down not only to the XT debacle but also to Alcatel’s lack of a single-RAN
solution. That is, to roll out 4G Telecom will need new boxes on the poles
rather than just changing out the cards in the existing boxes. That makes the
deployment much more expensive than either 2Degrees or Vodafone’s similar
rollouts and that’s a problem.

(EDIT: As has been pointed out, Alcatel will continue to run Telecom’s fixed line network and its operation centres and has just won the contract to upgrade the optical transport layer. I’m just talking about the mobile side of things here)

This also will mean trouble for 2Degrees – it now has to
spend yet more money rolling out 4G just to keep up. This at a time when it’s still
deploying 3G, with a looming 700MHz spectrum auction and when pundits are
suggesting it should probably look around and buy a fixed line operator (Orcon,
for example) or face being marginalised.

But I’m more interested in Telecom’s promise to roll out LTE
on the rural towers built by Vodafone as part of the Rural Broadband Initiative
(RBI) which is very exciting news for all concerned.

Currently the RBI deployment is flying somewhat under the
radar, predominantly because of the road crash that is early UFB deployments.
There are no stories of customers being cut off for days, of Chorus techs
standing around in clumps staring at holes in the ground, of cost blowouts
because of the difficulty of digging through footpaths.

Instead, we hear very little about RBI. Vodafone and Chorus
presumably are rolling out network coverage. Presumably customers are
connecting and presumably they’re reasonably happy with the service.

Vodafone promised the rural broadband pricing would be on
par with urban prices, and while the price points are not too dissimilar ($100
for phone and broadband being one example) the data limits are woeful. You have
a choice of 5GB or 15GB a month – neither of which comes close to urban levels.
That same $100 in the city would get me 100GB of data. Given we want to
stimulate the rural economy, you’d hope there would be pricing for business
users on the RBI, but while I can get 1TB of data for $20/month from Vodafone
in Three Kings, that level of use on the RBI would require me to sell the
entire South Island to pay my debt.

There’s also a lack of competition in rural New Zealand.
Aside from Farmside (the obvious candidate) there aren’t too many other
resellers of Vodafone’s service, nor are there partners clamouring to add their
equipment to the RBI towers – or rather, if there are they’re keeping very
quiet about it.

Both Telecom and Vodafone have said they will go all out on
the RBI towers once it secures some 700MHz spectrum and hopefully once that
starts we’ll see some actual competition for what could be a lucrative market.

Interestingly, I’d expect to see faster speeds on the rural
LTE network than on the urban.

I’ve been using Vodafone’s LTE for the past couple of weeks
and while my peak speed was an impressive 88Mbit/s down and 47Mbit/s up, most
of the time it’s around the 15-20Mbit/s down range, with upload being slightly

I’m putting it down to my being forced to share the network
with others, something that’s a perennial bone of contention (ha) among
wireless users.

Rural customers would, hopefully, have less to worry about
because there are fewer of them per tower.

Given the towers are being built under a government subsidy,
they’re going in to places where commercially there just aren’t enough
customers to justify deployment. That means the number of customers per site is
likely to be far fewer than in an urban environment. Which should mean you’re
more likely to see the higher speeds in rural areas (backhaul notwithstanding
as it’s fibre-based capacity from Chorus).

When you add in some of the cool stuff Huawei showed me in
China (NB: I flew there courtesy of Huawei) – things that will come up in the
next round of revisions to the LTE standard – rural customers will be well
placed to go mobile.

All told it’s an exciting time to be a mobile user. I’m
hopeful we’ll get some decent pricing out of the two main players (and of
course, 2Degrees will be there by default as it roams on Vodafone’s network)
and that can only be a good thing for rural New Zealand.

A trans-Tasman tunnel, hurrah!

(with apologies to Harry Harrison)

Telecom , Vodafone and Telstra have announced plans to build
a trans-Tasman submarine cable. While it’s only a memo of understanding (MoU)
at this point, the $70m build probably will go ahead as it makes good business

However it does make it more difficult to build a direct
NZ-US cable in the future, under the current conditions.

Today, New Zealand is a net importer of data. Most of our
surfing takes us off-shore. Traditionally this has meant the US but with an
increase in the number of Content Distribution Networks (CDNs) in Australia
hosting more of the content we’re after, that’s changing somewhat. Building a
cable heading across the Tasman that way means we’ll have more capacity and
potentially more competition on a vital trade route.

TUANZ has long argued that we need more capacity on the
international leg for two reasons. Firstly, to provide a competitive market and
secondly so we can end our role as net importer of data and become an exporter
of data. I’d like to see mega data centres set up in New Zealand becoming the
hub of all things content-related. I’d like to see us hosting data rather than
accessing it offshore and that means more pipes to the outside world.

A trans-Tasman pipe means we’re more likely to continue
accessing content that’s already stored in Australia and so strengthen
Australia’s role as the local hub. I can see a future where the Southern Cross
Cable has expired and any replacement is a direct link from Australia to the US
rather than via New Zealand. That would condemn us to a world where data
connections to North America have to go the long way round, increasing latency
issues and ping times and decreasing our desirability as a destination for
hosting content.

So we have mixed views on the idea of a Tasman cable, as you
can see.

Having said that, we’re very keen to understand how the
cable will be wholesaled, how Telecom’s role as shareholder in both competing
cables will work and just where the cable will land in New Zealand. Currently
fibre landing zones dictate the cable will come in to Whenuapai on Auckland’s
west coast, but as that’s part of an active volcanic field, I’d hope the
government would step up and suggest some alternatives, without adding a
massive cost to the project. It’s important we have diversity on our
international leg – currently we can survive breaks on the cable itself but an
event in Auckland would mean no international connectivity for a very long

Telecom, Telstra and Vodafone are holding a press conference
in half an hour – I’ll add anything from that once we’ve heard more.


Telecom’s smart move

Here at TUANZ we’ve long lobbied for better roaming rates
for mobile users.

The idea of having a smartphone and being able to use GPS,
connect with distant family and friends, send and receive email and all the
myriad of other things that have come about since Steve said “Build me a phone
with no buttons” has been one of the great boons of the last few years and
every time I use my tablet or smartphone I feel a little bit Trek inside.

Having to dumb it down, rip out its still-beating heart and
throw it on the concourse floor every time I disembark in a distant land has
always been something of an anathema to me. Every time I forced a local SIM in
my phone a little piece of me died inside.

I may be overselling it but data roaming charges really used
to get my goat.

I was delighted when Telecom CEO  Simon Moutter told me he was going to do
something about it. He’d just started back at Big Blue after his time at
Auckland Airport and I think he saw there just what a farce roaming charges had
become. Charging customers $20,000 for a product that should only cost $10 was
clearly bonkers, but nobody seemed willing to tackle the issue head on.

Sure, Vodafone had introduced its Data Angel programme which
warned users when their bill was getting excessive, but I always thought that
didn’t really address the problem of the price.

Moutter’s solution – a $6 flat rate for roamers who then go
on to use data out of their existing bundle ($10 if you’re roaming somewhere
other than Australia) has a simplicity about it that I really like. It’s hard to
not understand “you pay $6 on top of your usual amount and then just carry on
as you normally do”.

The danger, of course, was that customers wouldn’t bother
using the service, that uptake would stay about the same and that Telecom would
have to foot the bill for international data charges from the various foreign
network operators. “It would leave us a long way under water” was how Moutter
put it at last night’s After Five’s session in Wellington.

Instead, users responded with a nearly 200% increase in data
consumption while roaming, both in Australia and the other destinations covered
by the scheme.

This is tremendous news as it reinforces what we’ve been
saying all along. Make the price reasonable and people will actually pay for a
product. Sure, you can still get a better deal if you put a local SIM in your
phone on arrival, but the hassle of that (losing contact numbers, remembering APN
settings for the return journey and all the rest of it) isn’t worth the extra
savings for most people.

Moutter says this is part of the new approach to competition
at Telecom. Instead of “walking backwards slowly” defending market share and
generally being as negative as possible to the environment around, Moutter
wants Telecom to take a leadership position in the market and drive it forward.
Given how quickly he got the data roaming package introduced, Telecom is
certainly showing itself able to do that.

So full credit to Telecom for cutting to the chase and fixing
what has been a major problem for TUANZ members for a long time and now, onward
to see what’s next. Moutter says the company won’t be competing with over the
top providers because there’s no way he could foot it with an Apple or a Google
in that market. Instead, he says the future of telco providers is in bytes – it’s
data all the way and eventually he’ll be overseeing a company that doesn’t sell
minutes of calling or TXT messages. That’s an exciting proposition and hearing
it from the CEO of Telecom tells me that if there’s one thing the telco market
doesn’t lack for it’s surprises.

A bouquet for Telecom

Telecom has jumped into the roaming issue with both feet and
I’m very pleased with the result.

TUANZ has been lobbying hard to get data roaming rates
reduced. While the price of mobile data in New Zealand varies in price from
nothing to $30/GB, travellers heading oversees will find that price can balloon
out to $30,000/GB which makes for an unhappy homecoming, as I’m sure you’re all

We’ve all got horror stories of roaming gone wrong, whether
it’s having a piece of software update itself in the background or using the
wrong SIM card and paying casual rates. The issue’s got so bad the governments
of Australia and New Zealand have put together a trans-Tasman roaming review and
the future looks like being highly regulated.

Our telcos have responded the right way, by addressing
pricing directly. Australian customers should be so lucky – Telstra still
charges nose-bleed rates for travellers coming into New Zealand and the others
aren’t far ahead.

Vodafone New Zealand has launched its “data angel” service
for travellers alerting them to usage and requiring customers to make contact
before using excessive amounts of data, but Telecom has just changed the game
again with today’s announcement.

From December 21, Telecom customers travelling abroad will
pay a flat-rate, per day rate for data and so long as their usage is similar to
their usage at home, that’s all they’ll pay. In Australia, that’s a $6/day
price – in the UK, USA and China (among others) it’s $10/day.

This kind of offer goes a long way towards saving customers’
sanity when they’re roaming and is especially good for business users, whose
usage doesn’t vary that much whether they’re working in New Zealand or working abroad.
You’ll be able to do all the things you do locally without breaking the bank
and that will go a long way towards making data roaming a viable business tool.

If we can avoid the spectre of government agencies setting
prices, I’ll be happy and so I’m sure will the telcos. This kind of thing goes
a long way towards that goal and I for one am very pleased to see it.