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.


Cost based modelling

The Commerce Commission has made the only decision it could
regarding the UBA wholesale price determination process – it will continue to
work towards a final determination due before the end of the year.

Sadly the government has already said the Commission’s work
is irrelevant because it will introduce a review and a new Telco Bill that will
supersede the determination before it comes into effect in 2014. The
Commission’s work, vital as it is, will be completely sidelined in the process.

Chorus has also indicated that it’s likely to ask for a
“final pricing principle” on the UBA price alongside the UCLL (that’s the
unbundled service) FPP it’s already asked for. An FPP is a major piece of work
whereby the Commission works out how much the service actually costs (I know, I
agree it’s a bit odd that it doesn’t do that as standard but when you’ve sat
through as many economists’ presentations on cost models as I have you realise
that the Commission’s true role is to keep economic lecturers employed) and is
likely to take quite some time. The Commission has indicated that it may miss
the December 2014 timeframe and slip into 2015 because of that.

Actually I don’t mind the Commission doing the FPP work. I
think it makes sense to know exactly what we’re dealing with. The problem is,
the government doesn’t want to know what it actually costs to deliver broadband
over copper lines, it wants to make sure Chorus can continue to build the UFB
and as Chorus has said it won’t be able to if the price of copper drops (for
reasons I’ll get to in a minute) the government won’t have a bar of an actual
price point.

This is a shame because the review of the telco act could do
with a dose of facts, to put it mildly.

Currently the government is being led by Chorus’s world view.
Any reduction in wholesale rates will reduce Chorus’s income stream and
therefore jeopardise its ability to pay for the UFB deployment. On top of the
losses to copper line revenue, Chorus also faces a huge blow-out in terms of UFB
deployment costs to the tune of $300m in the first year alone, and so
logically, obviously, you can’t possibly inflict even more of a loss on the
company or it might go out of business/not deploy UFB/all end in tears (delete
where applicable).

There’s only one word for this and as we’re a
family-friendly website I can’t use it, so let me just go for “hornswoggle”

I know this to be true because Chorus is still talking about
paying out 25 cents per share as a dividend
, possibly the largest dividend payout
in New Zealand this year and a rate (given the current share price of $280)
that I haven’t seen since the early years of Telecom’s privatisation where the
US parent consortium took out more money than it paid year after year till the
coffers ran dry.

If Chorus can afford that level of dividend it can cope with
a Commerce Commission determination in the $8-$12/month mark and can spend a
bit of effort on sorting out its installation process so it doesn’t cost $3500
per install.

Several things need to happen and a review of the Telco Act
isn’t one of them.

Firstly, the government needs to step back and let the
market figure out what’s going on. This random intervention model doesn’t work
and just scares the investors (let’s remember, Chorus’s investors aren’t the
only ones in this game).

Secondly, Chorus needs to figure out how to install UFB
without it costing the earth. The other LFCs can do it – so can Chorus.

Thirdly, the Commerce Commission needs to get on and deliver
us a wholesale price that uses actual cost and not retail-minus as it is
supposed to.

Fourth, those government departments that are pushing Chorus
not to do anything useful with VDSL should butt out and let the company offer
the services its customers want – in the interim while we gear up for UFB, that’s
fast fibre. It’s going to be at least another three years before most of us
start to get UFB – that’s three years of training us up to demand UFB speeds
and the best way to do that is with faster copper products.

And if the government insists on pushing ahead with its
review (of an Act it introduced, let’s not forget) then it should use the
Commerce Commission’s work as a benchmark. After all, if we know what it
actually costs Chorus to deliver these services, isn’t that going to be just a
little bit important?

TUANZ submission on wholesale pricing

Unbundled Bitstream Access (UBA) Service Price Review

The Telecommunications Users Association of New Zealand is a membership-based, not-for-profit organisation that represents business users of telecommunications in New Zealand.

Established in 1986, we work to encourage investment in the New Zealand telecommunications market, better regulation to deliver increased competition and improved access for all New Zealanders.

We thank you for the opportunity to submit on the matter of wholesale pricing for copper services. For the purposes of releasing to the public, none of this submission should be deemed commercial in confidence.

Executive Summary

TUANZ has long argued for certainty in regulation; increased investment and lower prices for users of broadband.

TUANZ submitted on the amendments to the Telecommunications Act introduced in 2010, arguing strongly against the so-called “regulatory forbearance period” and in favour of a level playing field for all investors, overseen by the Telecommunications Commissioner and the Commerce Commission.

Comments made by both the Minister of Communications and the Prime Minister would seem to undermine that independence in favour of the company charged with building most of the countrys Ultra Fast Broadband (UFB) network.

TUANZ is gravely concerned by the level of political interference in the Commerce Commission process. The Prime Minister wont rule out changing the law to ensure the draft determination from the Commerce Commission doesnt become a final ruling and the Minister of Communications has also voiced her concerns over the draft determination.

The Commission is required to follow the law which clearly states the Commission to set a forward-looking cost-based price for UBA. The industry as a whole has known about this part of the Telecommunications Act, and has discussed it at some length, since it was enacted and it should come as no surprise to either government or industry participants.

TUANZ shares the Commissions view that benchmarking against such a small group of comparable countries is problematic, but is entirely opposed to the idea that the Commissions final determination be treated as some kind of recommendation to the government, rather than the legally binding determination that it is.

The government is, of course, entitled to introduce a new Telecommunications Bill to parliament and to make changes to the way in which the law works, however under the current law, the Commerce Commission has little choice in the matter but to use a cost-based model as it has in the draft determination.

TUANZ believes that wholesale UBA services will diminish over the next few years being replaced initially by VDSL services and ultimately by fibre  however, it is vital we get the settings right for both retail service providers and network operators, for investors and users of the service.


The Telecommunications Act

The Telecommunications Act makes it quite clear in section 77 just what is required of the Commerce Commission in this instance.

Review of standard terms determination for unbundled bitstream access service before expiry of 1 year from separation day

    (1)The Commission must make reasonable efforts to do the following before the expiry of 1 year from separation day:

o    (a)review the standard terms determination for Chorus’s unbundled bitstream access service under section 30R for the purpose of making any changes that may be necessary in order to implement the initial and final pricing principles applicable after the expiry of 3 years from separation day; and

o    (b)give public notice of the result of the review.

(2)To avoid doubt, no variation of, addition to, or deletion of terms specified in the standard terms determination as a result of the Commission’s review in accordance with subsection (1) may take effect before the expiry of 3 years from separation day.

The Act goes on to explicitly define the methodology which the Commerce Commission must use to reach thisdetermination:

The price for the designated access service entitled Choruss unbundled copper local loop network, plus benchmarking additional costs incurred in providing the unbundled Bitstream access service against prices in comparable countries that use a forward-looking cost-basedpricing method  

Schedule 1 goes on to require the Commission consider its pricing for UCLL (Unbundled Copper Local Loop) service when assessing the price for UBA:

The Commission must consider relativity between this service and Choruss unbundled copper local loop network service (to the extent that terms and conditions have been determined for that service)

The Commission released its final determination on LLU pricing on 3 December 2012.

So the rules by which the Commission must work are clearly outlined  UBA must be determined on a forward-looking cost-based assessment, and benchmarking with similar regimes around the world must be taken into account. The starting point for pricing must be based on the price already determined for UCLL.

There is no room, in TUANZs view, for the Commission to deviate from this model. Any changes to this model must be made at a political level rather than by the regulator.

Consequently, TUANZ supports the Commissions approach and its draft determination. 

UBA price

TUANZ supports the Commissions conclusions on price, based as they are on both cost-based services and its benchmarking efforts with regard to similar jurisdictions overseas.

Unfortunately, as the Commission has pointed out, with only two countries to compare ourselves against, the result is less than ideal. TUANZ would support the Commission broadening its brief or potentially looking to model costs rather than compare, given the limited nature of the market. That will, however, require a change to the Act itself.

Copper versus fibre

 Section 19 (A) of the Telco Act says:

In the exercise of its powers under Schedule 3,  the Commission must have regard to any economic policies of the Government that are transmitted, in writing, to the Commission by the Minister.

In this instance that must surely mean the Commission must consider the governments Ultra Fast Broadband (UFB) project. Much has been made of the need to migrate customers from the existing copper network over to the fibre-based network once it becomes available.

Chorus is the lead network partner on the UFB project, as well as being the owner of most of the countrys copper lines, and so is placed in the interesting situation of having to earn its income predominantly from copper lines at the same time as it rolls out a replacement network.

Clearly this economic tension must lie at the heart of the governments concern over dramatic changes to the price for copper services. Chorus has stated that the Commissions draft determination would, if introduced into practice, lower its revenue by $160m a year, equal to 40% of its earnings.

TUANZ has to believe that Chorus must have known about the UBA review for as long as TUANZ has known and that any move to a cost-based model would result in the sort of drop in revenue seen here. Chorus investors must have been aware of the potential for this kind of move in a similar time frame.

Similarly, if TUANZ and Chorus both knew such a review was forthcoming, surely investors in other telcos would have known as well, and priced their investments accordingly.

TUANZ is very concerned that political interference at this point in the process will lead to yet more instability in the market as investors see long-signalled intentions cast aside at the last minute. TUANZ would like to see more investment in telecommunications in New Zealand and a robust regulatory regime is critical to that investment. Changing the rules when they become unpalatable simply isnt acceptable.

Additionally, TUANZ does not see the copper network competing with the fibre network beyond the transition period.

Currently speeds over the copper network are constrained by the nature of the technology involved. ADSL (the family of technology deployed on Choruss network and which UBA uses) is “asymmetrical”. That is, the upload speed is only a fraction of the download speed. 

While home users generally dont upload that much content, although that is changing rapidly, business users do and require much faster upload speeds than are found on the ADSL services, such as UBA.

The UFB rollout is scheduled to continue for most of this decade and most New Zealand homes wont be able to be connected until 2016 at the earliest. Internationally, uptake rates of no more than 20% are the norm for fibre rollouts of this type and so for the foreseeable future New Zealands broadband will be delivered predominantly over copper lines.

TUANZ fully expects to see new DSL services rolled out in the months ahead, especially VDSL-based services, which provide a much faster upload and download speed over short-run copper. Choruss existing “fibre to the node” network means far more New Zealand households are within  reach of a fibre-fed cabinet than ever before and TUANZ is confident New Zealanders will avail themselves of faster speeds when they become available.

Rather than stopping the migration to fibre, TUANZ believes faster copper services will help drive that demand.

Today a home user connected via ADSL will see relatively modest speeds  12Mbit/s download and 1Mbit/s upload would not be uncommon.

For an individual user that is quite acceptable in todays broadband world, however as we connect more devices to our business and home broadband services, as more of us use broadband more frequently, that level of speed will rapidly become unacceptable. Ironically, connecting schools and businesses to the UFB first will help spur on families and employees who are used to fibre-like speeds at school or work and will want more at home.

In the next three to five years TUANZ expects most of Choruss income will continue to be received from customers of its copper network, but the vast majority of those wont be UBA customers but rather VDSL customers. This interim migration from basic broadband to faster speeds  must be considered as well as the migration from copper to fibre. Indeed, TUANZ believes the move to faster DSL services will encourage customers to take up fibre in much greater numbers when it finally does become available. 

None of that will eventuate if the price of copper services in New Zealand is kept artificially high in order to satisfy the needs of one companys income stream  even a company as important to the future of telecommunications in New Zealand as Chorus.


The Commission has acted appropriately with its UBA determination process, following the law as its written.

TUANZ is gravely concerned that political interference in this process will undermine the good work of the regulator and impact on future investment in the telecommunications market.

TUANZ is also concerned that putting the earnings of one company ahead of the reduction in price will see consumers (both business and home users) disadvantaged.

TUANZ does not believe the impact on Choruss business model will be as severe as indicated in the press, as customers will predominantly move to faster copper speeds and so be migrating away from UBA in the short term. In the longer term they will, of course, be encouraged off copper and on to fibre anyway.

TUANZ thanks the Commission again for allowing us to comment on the draft determination. If the Commission does hold a conference to discuss these matters, TUANZ would like to be involved.

Initial Pricing Principle

The Commerce Commission is coming in for considerable flack
for its role in determining the price of Chorus’s wholesale service and it’s
worth reviewing what the Commission is required to do and why it’s doing it.

The Commission is governed by several acts of parliament not
least of which is the Commerce Act itself, which has been since 1986 and has
flaws enough but which allows for the creation of the Commerce Commission

A relatively new part of the Commerce Commission is the
Telecommunications Commissioner’s role, something which was created in 2001 to
oversee the telco sector in New Zealand. Prior to that, we had no industry
specific regulation, no regulator and for those of you with a long memory, no
real competition in the market.

The Telco Commissioner was required to conduct periodic
reviews into a number of areas, one of which was the price Telecom charged its
competitors for using its network. This service, unbundled bitstream access
(UBA) was assessed on a “retail-minus” basis. That is, Telecom told the
Commission what its various retail plans were, the Commission took an average
number from those plans, removed a margin and presented Telecom with its
wholesale price. This price was reviewed regularly but generally speaking it’s
been the primary product most ISPs in New Zealand re-package and sell as their
own broadband service.

In effect, for many years we had no choice but to buy the
Telecom product, either from Telecom or from an ISP that simply changed the
name and re-sold the same product.

I’ve long argued that this isn’t wholesale per se – it is in
fact resale. The ISPs had limited control over the product, couldn’t specify
changes they’d like to see introduced, couldn’t really differentiate at all.

In 2010 the newly appointed Minister of Communications
Steven Joyce introduced a new version of the Telecommunications Act (the third
in a decade) as part of the sweeping changes the government would be
introducing. The main plank of the policy was the introduction of the UFB
project and the promise of government funding to any provider that built the

The minister also introduced a Supplementary Order Paper
that added in a few caveats including the infamous regulatory holiday for the
company that built the UFB, but as part of that SOP the Minister also required
the Commission to do two other things: firstly, to average the price of
unbundled services between rural and urban New Zealand (previously we had two
prices) and to stop this constant round of assessing the price of wholesale service.

The Minister ordered a change to the “initial pricing principle”
(IPP) which governs the way the Commission must assess pricing. Out went retail
minus and in came “cost based” pricing. To quote from the Telecommunications Act itself (Part 2 –
Designated Services):

Initial pricing
Benchmarking against
interconnection prices in comparabl countries that result from
the application to networks that are similar to the access provider’s fixed PSTN of— 

(a) a forward-looking cost-based pricing method

Bearing in mind this is in the law itself – there’s no room
for the Commission to say “we don’t think this is a good idea”. Far from it –
the Commission has expressed its concerns about retail-minus as a model for
many years, as has TUANZ. The ability for any incumbent to game the system by
introducing a handful of very expensive plans and so skew the average was
always too much to endure and we saw ISPs complaining bitterly that some of the
retail plans Telecom offered were priced below the wholesale cost to its

As I said yesterday, there’s no way to use retail minus when
your network operator is structurally separated and has no retail arm. What
would you do – assess prices right across the board from all ISPs and work
backwards from there?

The only option is to move to a cost-based model, and as that’s
what the law requires, that’s what the Commission has done.

I’ve called the Commission on mistakes in the past: the original
TSO decision was a travesty that lumbered the market with an utter nonsense for
nearly a decade. The decision not to unbundle in 2003 was poor and did not
serve us well.

I even question the price point for LLU services announced
yesterday – it seems odd to me that prices for connectivity haven’t fallen by
more than $4 in five years.

But on the matter of using a cost-based analysis to
determine the wholesale price of service from Chorus, the Commission has no
choice – it is the law.