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.


Whither VDSL?

The UFB rollout is slated to take until the end of the
decade and arguments about whether that’s 2019 or 2020 aside, for most of us
it’ll be years before we see the fibre van roll up outside our homes.

For the foreseeable future, we’re locked in to a copper
world here in suburban New Zealand. While I fully support schools, hospitals
and businesses getting access to fibre as a priority (SME businesses stand to
gain the most from the UFB rollout and New Zealand will benefit from the
increased efficiencies that will bring) it does mean there’s a balancing act to
be maintained and unfortunately home users are on the wrong side of it.

But that’s OK because the advances in technology in the
copper world mean we should be able to see better services on our copper networks
in the meantime.

Over on Computerworld, a comment from Malcolm Dick (he of
CallPlus/Slingshot fame) caught my eye. Malcolm points to a recent announcement
regarding VDSL 2+ with vectoring:

“which gives download speeds of
100[Mbit/s] and upload speeds of 40[Mbit/s] on copper runs of 400metres long –
I would guess that covers around 800,000 households in New Zealand.”

Even standard VDSL as it exists today would be great – not
so much for the download speed but for the upload.

Currently, as you know, I’m running TUANZ from home – I have
a very good ADSL2+ connection and regularly get in excess of 15Mbit/s down.
This is fine for my uses for the most part, but the upload speed of at best
1Mbit/s is a killer. I’d be much better off with a 50Mbit/s down, 30Mbit/s up
speed which, given my location (less than 600m to the Mt Roskill exchange),
should be readily attainable.

Except there are very few VDSL sellers out there and worse,
the data caps are so incredibly low. It would cost hundreds of dollars a month more
to connect to a VDSL port, for no apparent reason.

Today, each VDSL port costs a premium of about $20 over and
above an ADSL port. Why? Because that’s the price the Commerce Commission has
set.  It’s a premium service, so it needs
a premium connection price, goes the theory.

Given the difference isn’t in the card in the slot but in
the backhaul and in the contention rates and so on , this is an artificial
price which keeps the retail price too high to be of interest to either
retailers or consumers.

Retail ISPs keen on selling VDSL will need to increase both
backhaul capacity and make sure the service delivers a higher level of quality
than ADSL2 does in order to attract customers. I get that, but an artificially
high price point that simply delivers extra cash to Chorus doesn’t really cut

And then there’s the “copper versus fibre” model. The
argument goes like this – ISPs should not be wasting their time and money
investing in copper because fibre is coming and copper is a competitor. We
should artificially inflate prices on copper to ensure customers are
“encouraged” to take up fibre instead.

That’s all well and good if we all have access to fibre
(which we don’t) and if there is absolutely no other incentive in making the
leap to fibre (there will be plenty of incentives) but that’s not the case.

Instead I would suggest faster copper speeds serve as an
enticement to fibre – that a customer who has already moved up to 30Mbit/s is
more likely to want 50Mbit/s or even 100Mbit/s when that becomes available.
They’ll have discovered the apps they need to make such speeds worth their
while and their service providers will also have figured out which services
customers want. All of that is good for the fibre rollout because when it
finally arrives at my doorstep I’ll have an incentive to move – an incentive
other than “copper’s so expensive now I might as well”.

The telcos I’ve spoken to are all keen to rollout VDSL
services. They see the upside to it as they’ve seen the upside to unbundling
the copper lines today. They get increased margin, customers get better
service, they win more custom as word gets around and everyone’s happy. There’s
investment, there’s competition and there’s a dynamism in the fixed line market
that we simply wouldn’t have believed only three or four years ago. We were
late to unbundling, yet it’s still delivering results.

If we are to hike the price of copper lines to encourage
migration to fibre, we run the risk of snuffing out the nascent competitive
market in our fixed line world – that at a time when two of the three largest
players are about to join forces. That would be a tremendous leap backwards for
the industry and we, the customers who can’t get on to the UFB fibre, would pay
in terms of service and price.

Copper isn’t a competitor to fibre today. It might be once
the UFB is built but for the next seven years or more, it’s simply the only
choice we have for bulk broadband services. It’s important we get the regulated
price settings right.