NBN Co chief champions ongoing customer experience focus as rollout nears completion

Stephen Rue, chief executive officer at NBN Co, the company rolling out the Australian national broadband network took some time out during Informa Tech’s Broadband World Forum in Amsterdam to review some recent developments of the rollout as it gathers pace in the final stages.

Having just used his #bbwf keynote to unveil a new international broadband speed report commissioned by NBN Co, Rue was eager to emphasize the importance of maintaining an ongoing company focus on customer service – particularly as the project’s benefits to retail service providers become more apparent as the project nears completion.

TELECOM TIMES: Thank you for your time. To what extent do you feel the wholesale remit of the NBN project was always going to present some issues and invite closer scrutiny? Looking back, can you nominate some key decisions, approaches or moments when strategic focal points were selected, which ideally could have been managed differently?

STEPHEN RUE: I have to be honest with you. I look forward, I don’t look back. I think the important thing for me is that NBN is here. We will have completed the large-scale rollout by June next year and for me, what’s important now –  having built a network across the whole nation – is we do a few things.

We look at customer experience, at how we and the retailers together, and also how we and the retailers working with regulators, can ensure we get a great experience for people.

Increasingly, we will see people use services like teleHealth to educate their children and to connect more with people. It means being able to live and work in regional and rural Australia and set up a business and stay in Australia [while] being able to sell products across the whole nation. So customer experience is important.

Then it’s also about helping uplift the digital capability of the nation through ensuring we help people utilise that asset. For example, we have a team called NBN Local. Its remit is to go and meet with stakeholders like the National Farmers Federation, and small businesses like aged care facilities, and assist them in helping the community through the broadband services they use.

Thirdly, it’s about getting to a cash flow positive position. That’s important so that we can continue to invest back into NBN, meaning that as technology moves and as consumer needs move, we can move with them.

TELECOM TIMES: Actually, I have a keen interest in the new area of digital Health, teleHealth or whatever it may end up being called, i.e. the interplay between tech/telco and health/well-being – a promising niche increasingly coming to the fore.

More specifically, I feel we could use more awareness around how tech and connectivity can have a far reaching, beneficial impact on the lives of those facing severe health issues. Is this an area NBN Co and its enterprise partners and endusers may want to focus on more as the rollout gathers pace in the completion phase?Is this an area NBN Co and its enterprise partners and endusers might want to focus on more, perhaps as a strategic focal lever to tweak as the rollout picks up pace in the haseIs this an area the NBN may be focusing on more as a strategic focal point that may be tweaked as the rollout gathers pace in the end phase??

STEPHEN RUEAs an organisation, we are very focused on what we call digital literacy and ensuring that we assist, as best as we can, organisations’ understanding of what their digital needs are and seeing how we can offer solutions to them.

And when I think about teleHealth, I also think about people I visited recently at the Royal Flying Doctors, and their ability to be able to access health services, whether they be psychological health services, or medical doctors from a distance as they meet their patients further out in rural and remote Australia.

TELECOM TIMES: In terms of the NBN as part of the nation’s move into the digital era, what is your expectation of the value of this opportunity to the Australian economy when we look at the next decade?

STEPHEN RUEWe did research a couple of years ago that indicated that the benefits of NBN on its rollout to the economy would be around about 10 billion dollars a year.

The investment in business is clearly important to enable entrepreneurs to be successful but also to ensure that there are jobs being created and that indeed those jobs are not just in the capital cities. 

We’re very focused on the Australian economy in various ways [such as] investing in regional and rural Australia – so the economies in [those areas] remain vibrant by looking at things like agriculture and tourism. 

We’re also very focused on providing services to small businesses. We introduced a series of new products last year directed toward business. We have invested in what we call a Business Operations Centre, whereby we provide additional services to some businesses in terms of assisting with connections of the system, when obviously there is a fault on the network.

TELECOM TIMES: In regard to the AlphaBeta speed check report launched here at Broadband World Forum, in your view which elements should be present within any comparison methodology that might warrant a claim of being truly even-handed, if not entirely independent?

STEPHEN RUE: I think in terms of the report today, what’s important is that when you compare speeds and capabilities between nations that you do a few things. That you use data that’s reliable and that you use large sample sizes, and you look at the percentage of the population that actually has access to that network.

And I think that when you do that, it’s important to put countries in context with each other – comparing countries of a particular size is important as well. So that we can actually see what you’ve created, and how that network stands up against international comparison.

TELECOM TIMES: Listening to KPN CTDO Babak Fouladi keynote, it occurred to me that the whole false dichotomy of there being a choice in emphasis between 5G and the business case for a vast deployment of ubiquitous fast fibre – such as the one in which we’ve been revelling in Australia – didn’t appear to feature as a hot topic of debate in the European market.

Do you think it’s too late in the game for Australia to understand that a future proof digital economy will need to ensure both elements are underpinned to an advanced level?

STEPHEN RUE: I think they serve different needs, and I think people in their homes will continue to consume a large amount of data, with ongoing exponential growth of video [and] increasingly people working from home. And you will see an ongoing growth in data which will need a great fixed line network. 

But equally, we will see, over time, the mobile operators upgrade to 5G and I think that will also provide different benefits for the consumerMy view is: 5G and fixed broadband networks are both important. 5G will, I’ve got no doubt, provide great benefits to the Australian economy. 

I think they’re both important and they’ll live beside each other. And the reason I say that is, when you look at the growth on our network of the amount of data that’s being consumed, it continues to grow exponentially.

There’s no doubt that we’ll be getting to a point in time in the next decade when, for example, it will be more than a terabyte of data [that is] consumed on fixed-line networksThat actually means that the fixed line network is very important. But equally, 5G will be important for the benefits that they will provide to the internet-of-things and to businesses.

In terms of our own NBN business, we’ll look to deploy 5G on some of our fixed wireless networks. But obviously, the mobile players will look at how the 5G network is built out throughout Australia.

Richard van der Draay  was in Amsterdam as a guest of Informa Tech

NBN taken to task by ACCC over discriminatory behaviour

NBN Co has received a slap down from the ACCC for discriminating between RSPs and for providing Macquarie Telecom with pricing details months ahead of its competitors.

The government-owned wholesaler has been given a formal warning over the discrimination with the ACCC accepting a court enforceable undertaking from NBN that it will put in measures to ensure similar doesn’t happen again.

The action, which relates to NBN’s enterprise Ethernet offerings, is the first time the ACCC has used its power to issue a formal warning for a contravention of the service providers. NBN Co is prohibited under Competition and Consumer Act obligations from discriminating among retail service providers in the supply of regulated wholesale services and related activities.

The ACCC says from at least January 2018, NBN offered ‘materially different’ commercial terms to different RSPs as it upgraded its infrastructure to support high-speed, business-grade services. It also provided Macquarie Telecom (which ACCC says did nothing wrong) with indicative pricing information for its new enterprise ethernet service in January 2018. It wouldn’t be until May 2018 that other RSPs would see that same information.

ACCC chair Rod Sims says NBN Co failed to comply with its non-discrimination obligations on a number of fronts.

“These legal obligations were enacted to ensure that NBN Co does not distort competition in the market for retail NBN services, such as by favouring larger RSPs.”

The ACCC says it found no evidence that NBN’s actions resulted in specific harm or competitive detriment and that market feedback found NBN’s entry to the wholesale markets had increased competition, particularly in areas where Telstra was the only other fixed-line infrastructure provider.

Sims says the action was nonetheless a serious breach of NBN’s non-discrimination obligations.

“The undertaking we have accepted from NBN Co is intended to ensure that all access seekers can compete on an equal footing going forward.”

In its undertaking to the ACCC, NBN co admits it didn’t have appropriate processes in place to ensure compliance with transparency and non-discrimination obligations. It has committed to offering consistent contract terms and to providing information at the same time to all access seekers, as well as implementing ‘extensive compliance processes’. An external audit of its compliance will also be required.

“We will be closely monitoring NBN Co’s conduct under the enforceable undertaking, and reserve our right to take further action if we are not satisfied,” Mr Sims says.

ACCC to NBN: Improve service or pay the cost

Sort the service problems or pay the price. That the message from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, as it proposes new terms – including increased rebates for missed appointments, late connections and unresolved faults – in an effort to improve NBN Co’s wholesale service levels.

The consumer watchdog has released a draft decision for new regulated wholesale terms for the service standards NBN provides to RSPs. Among the proposals is that one-off rebate payments switch to a daily penalty, at an increased rate, and rebate rates for missed appointments increased from $25 to $75. Also flagged is a $20 monthly rebate introduced for underperforming fixed wireless services.

The proposals are part of the NBN wholesale service standards inquiry, which kicked off back in 2017 as complaints about the service soared. The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman’s Annual Report for 2018-2019 noted 11,635 complaints about changing providers or establishing connections to the NBN, with the number of complaints rising from 6.7 per 1000 in the first half of the year to 8.6 in the second half.

Once connected, the complaints continued, with 23,362 complaints recorded about service quality.

In August the ACCC also flagged underperforming broadband as an issue, noting in its Measuring Broadband Australia report that 12.4 percent of consumers were continuing to experience underperforming services that rarely come close to reaching maximum plan speeds.

This week’s draft decision report says daily rebates for delayed connections should involve ‘a meaningful financial consequence for each delayed connection, providing a clear incentive for NBN Co to promptly resolve connection delays and minimise harm to end-users’.

With that in mind, the ACCC has suggested a connection rebate of $13.50 per business day for each missed connection service level, up to 20 business days.

Slow fixing of faults would see NBN charged $20 a day for the first five business days, then $30 a business day, up to a cap of 40 business days.

Rod Sims, ACCC chair, says it’s unusual for a monopoly telco network operator of NBN’s scale not to face regulated services standards.

Sims says the draft arrangements are designed to provide NBN Co with ‘more incentives’ to lift service standards to retail service providers, something Sims says should, in turn, improve service to consumers by reducing instances of missed appointments, delayed connections and unresolved faults.

“We have heard long-standing concerns from consumers about how frustrating, inconvenient and costly these issues can be,” Sims says, adding that there needs to be more action from NBN Co and RSPs.

NBN and RSPs are currently negotiating a new wholesale broadband agreement, setting out access to NBN’s wholesale service, and Sims says the ACCC’s proposal is expected to complement industry negotiations.

“These proposed regulated terms will establish baseline service standards, while allowing parties freedom to bargain on specific terms,” he says.

“We expect NBN Co and other service providers to identify more improvements that will benefit consumers.”

Feedback on the draft decision is open until 01 November.

Comms tech pulls down Australia’s digital competitiveness ranking

Australia’s communications technology profile has been flagged as a key contributing factor to the country’s slide in the latest international digital competitiveness rankings collated by Switzerland’s IMD World Competitiveness Center.

Australia slipped one place to 14 in the 2019 IMD World Digital Competitiveness ranking, which assesses the digital competitiveness of 63 nations. Australia’s ranking in 2018 came in at 13, while in 2015, the country was ranked ninth overall.

Key weaknesses contributing to Australia’s ranking fall included business agility, technology skills and communications technology, according to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA), which is the Australian partner of the IMD World Competitive Center.

The ranking system rates national performance in three areas: knowledge, technology and future readiness, with further sub-factors considered under each of these elements, including communications technology and internet bandwidth speed.

CEDA CEO Melinda Cilento said that in the technology area, Australia’s communications technology subcategory ranking remained poor, at 54. Australia’s internet bandwidth speed subcategory ranking in the latest report, meanwhile, was 38.

Cilento suggested the results showed Australia had more work to do if it is to keep pace with other economies.

“The results highlight that we need a broader national community discussion around the importance of R&D, investment in technology, and tech skills and how the benefits of these flow back to the community,” she said.

By contrast, New Zealand’s communications technology subcategory ranking came in at 27, although the country’s overall digital competitiveness ranking was 18, one up from the previous year’s ranking, but four places lower than its ranking in 2017. In terms of internet bandwidth speed, New Zealand outstripped Australia, coming in at number 20.

According to Cilento, another area of concern for Australia is the development of tech skills.

“While the Australian community has an appetite for new technology with a high uptake of smartphones and tablets, ranking ninth and third respectively, we don’t rank well in terms of higher technical skills,” Cilento said. “Australia ranked 44 on digital/technological skills and employee training, and 53 on graduates in sciences.”

There were some bright spots for Australia too, according to Cilento, who highlighted factors such as flow of international students, country credit rating, tablet possession and e-government – all areas where Australia was ranked among the top five countries globally.

Globally, the top five ranking countries in the 2019 IMD World Digital Competitiveness ranking were United States, in the number one spot, followed by Singapore, Sweden, Denmark, and Switzerland. These remained unchanged from the previous year’s ranking.

NBN service quality complaints on the rise

Complaints about service quality, connections and migrations involving Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) rose in the first six months of 2019, despite complaints relating to the country’s broader telecommunications services falling overall during the year ending June.

This is according to the latest figures by the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO). The TIO’s annual report for the financial year ending June 2019, released on 25 September, paints a picture of increasing complexity among the issues Australians are complaining about when it comes to their telecommunications services.

“Complaints about phone and internet services in Australia have continued their downward trend, and this is good news for consumers and the telecommunications industry, but this is only one part of the story,” said Ombudsman Judi Jones. “The volume of complaints coming back to us unresolved shows an emerging picture of complexity in technical and small business issues.

“Some measures we have taken to address this are the formation of specialist teams to handle these escalated complaints, and working closely with the phone and internet providers to better understand the barriers to resolving these issues,” she said.

According to the TIO, the 12 months from July 2018 to June 2019 saw 47 per cent of escalated complaints closed within 60 days, compared to 77 percent in FY2017-18.

The top five complaint issues about internet services were no action or delayed action by a service provider, with 13,976 complaints, service and equipment fees (13,509 complaints), slow data speed (8,668 complaints), intermittent service/dropouts (7,915) and delay establishing a service (7,431).

At the same time, the top five complaint issues about mobile services were service and equipment fees, with 12,905 complaints, no or delayed action by provider (11,675 complaints), resolution agreed but not met (4,263), misleading conduct when making a contract (3,656) and termination fees (2,975).

Altogether, the TIO received 132,387 complaints throughout the year, representing a year-on-year fall of 21 percent. However, for the first time, complaints relating to internet services exceeded those of mobile services, with 43,164 complaints – or 32.6 percent – and 40,103 complaints, respectively.

Complaints relating to services delivered via the NBN comprised a large portion of the total regarding internet services. According to the report, 23,362 complaints were recorded in FY2018-19 about service quality on the NBN. Complaints increased from 2.1 per 1,000 premises on the network in the first half of the year to 2.5 per 1,000 in the second half of the year.

Services delivered over the NBN were the subject of 48.2 percent of complaints about service quality during the 12-month period. By comparison, 40.4 percent of such complaints revolved around services delivered via other networks. Mobile networks accounted for 11.3 percent of complaints of this nature.

Meanwhile, 11,635 complaints were recorded in FY2018-19 about changing providers or establishing a connection to the NBN. Complaints increased from 6.7 per 1,000 premises added in the first half of the year, to 8.6 in the second half of the 12-month period.

Indeed, 56.4 percent of all complaints relating to connection and changing providers were about services delivered over the NBN. However, this comes as little surprise, given that, as the national broadband wholesaler draws closer to the completion of its rollout, more end consumers are being connected to the network.

“With transition to the NBN, providers offered a range of new products and services. As a result, we saw a new range of complaints and enquiries from consumers navigating the changed environment. The increase in complaints about internet services is one example of this,” the TIO report stated.

By comparison, such complaints involving services delivered via other networks accounted for 30.6 percent of the total, while mobile network services were at the centre of 13 percent of complaints about connection or changing providers.

Unsurprisingly, the country’s largest telecommunications player, Telstra, claimed the lion’s share of complaints, accounting for roughly 50.2 percent, although it should be noted that the company enjoyed a 19.5 percent fall in complaints from the previous year’s tally of 82,528.

Optus, as the country’s second largest telco, came in second, with 23.9 percent of the total. Like Telstra, Optus saw a fall in complaints against its name, enjoying a 22.2 decrease, year-on-year. Optus was followed by Vodafone, iiNet and TPG Internet, with 5.1 percent of the total, 4.3 percent and 4.1 percent, respectively. All experienced a year-on-year decrease.

“We are pleased to see that complaints decreased in every state, and for all of the providers listed in the report,” said John Stanton, CEO of telecommunications industry body, the Communications Alliance.

“There has been significant work over the past two years by Industry to improve the customer experience, including – but certainly not limited to – NBN Co and RSPs [retail service providers] achieving better communication and coordination for consumers and businesses as they migrate services to NBN-based networks,” he said.

NBN Co okays traffic, transport and environmental infrastructure, ATMs to link to wholesale broadband access network

NBN Co – the company rolling out the Australian national broadband network – will allow operators of traffic signals, automatic teller machines and other specialised devices to select services over its access network through their retail service providers.

According to NBN Co, its new option – Network Extensions – was designed to extend the availability of select NBN wholesale services to organisations with infrastructure and devices operating outside a residential or business premises location.

“Typically operated by government and commercial organisations, these types of specialised systems include traffic signals, traffic cameras, roadside emergency points, rail boom gates, street light controllers, certain types of CCTV, stand-alone automatic teller machines, environmental sensors and public transport infrastructure,” it said.

Initially available across NBN Co’s Fibre to the Node (FTTN) footprint, the company said Network Extensions will allow infrastructure operators to consolidate their connectivity requirements on the access network, offering operational simplicity and new opportunities for automation, innovation and the world of IoT (Internet of Things).

“These applications have historically been connected by a variety of different technologies due to limited network availability and geographical constraints,” it said. “There are plans for a future expansion of Network Extensions across other fixed line technology areas.”

image (2)“This is a market segment characterised by a wide variety of specialised devices and complex services connected by a range of aging networks and technologies,” said NBN Co CTO Ray Owen.

“By bringing this infrastructure onto the NBN access network , operators have significant potential to simplify their operations and explore new innovation opportunities made possible by high-speed broadband and the emerging world of the IoT.”

NBN Co stands by CVC charges amid wholesale pricing overhaul

NBN Co has proposed a series of wholesale discounts and higher capacity inclusions across its products as part of its latest industry consultation round, but refuses to bow to telco pressure to drop its controversial connectivity virtual circuit (CVC) charge. 

The company behind the country’s National Broadband Network (NBN) released the second paper of its wholesale pricing review consultation with industry on 17 September, following twelve weeks of consultation with more than 50 NBN retail service providers (RSPs) and industry groups.

Among the big changes proposed by the network builder are wholesale discounts and higher capacity inclusions across its high-speed tiers. These include a 100/20 bundle discount starting with 3.75Mbps of included capacity at an effective charge of A$58 per month, as flagged at the beginning of the consultation process in June.

Additionally, the changes would include a 250/25 bundle discount starting with 4.75 Mbps of included capacity at an effective charge of A$68 per month, and an up to 1000/50 bundle discount starting with 5.75Mbps of included capacity at an effective charge of A$80 per month.

It should be noted that the 100/20Mbps Access Virtual Circuit (AVC) Traffic Class 4 (TC-4) proposal is being considered across all fixed line footprints, with ranged peak information rates (PIRs) being provided for the fibre-to-the-basement (FttB), fibre-to-the-curb (FttC) and fibre-to-the-node (FttN) network services.

The 250/25Mbps and the 1Gbps/50Mbps proposals are being considered for NBN Co’s fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) and hybrid fibre coaxial (HFC) footprints, while the feasibility of offering these tiers in the (FTTC) footprint is still being investigated.

According to NBN Co, the new 100/20 bundle discount is around 11 percent cheaper than the A$65 effective charge for the 100/40 bundle discount and the increase in CVC inclusion improves the total value by 20 percent. At the same time, the new 250/25 bundle discount is 32 percent cheaper than the A$100 effective charge for the 250/100 bundle discount.

The new up to 1000/50 bundle discount, meanwhile, 55 per cent cheaper than the previous A$180 effective charge for the 1000/400 bundle discount. Additionally, an almost doubling of the CVC inclusion to 5.75Mbps improves the total value by almost 68 per cent. 

For Ken Wallis, NBN Co general manager, commercial, these new high-speed tier offerings represent the biggest changes in NBN Co’s latest wholesale pricing proposals.

“We brought down the price, created the new 100/20 to 250/25 and the new up to 1Gbps/50Mbps so that they are at a much lower cost for RSPs to upsell,” Wallis told Telecom Times. “I feel this is the really big change here, and really opens up some greater opportunities for customers, as well as RSPs, in terms of their business cases as well.”

At the other end of the spectrum, NBN Co is planning to introduce a modified 12/1 Entry Level Bundle (mELB) discount on 1 October 2019.

Although the starting effective wholesale charge of A$22.50 and inclusion of 150Kbps (0.15Mbps) remains unchanged for voice only customers and those who use limited data, the additional charge that is applied when the average monthly peak usage across relevant services exceeds the included 150Kbps will be reduced from A$22.50 to A$5.70. 

This additional charge is proposed to be further reduced to A$4.90 in May 2020 and to A$4.10 in October 2020. There will also be the option of an additional CVC charge of A$8/Mbps to accommodate higher data users.

NBN Co is also proposing changes to its mid-tier offering. In an effort to deliver a more economically attractive 25/5 bundle discount to RSPs, the company is proposing to reduce the wholesale effective charge from A$45 (including 2Mbps of CVC) that exists today to A$37 (including 1.25Mbps of CVC) in November 2019, and to increase this capacity allocation to 1.5Mbps in May 2021.

Given that, according to NBN Co, 65 percent of end customers are currently subscribed to the 50/20 wholesale speed tier, the company is proposing to help RSPs improve their service experience by adding extra CVC inclusion to the ($45) 50/20 wholesale bundle discount, increasing from a CVC inclusion of 2Mbps today to 2.25Mbps in May 2020, 2.5Mbps in May 2021.

While NBN Co’s Pricing Review 2019 Consultation Paper 2 appears to have allowed for a series of discounts and other changes to appease the country’s telcos, the company has reiterated its commitment to retain its CVC charge model, despite ongoing criticism by a number of RSPs, most notably Telstra, NBN Co’s biggest retailer.

image (1)“While we know that some RSPs have called for the removal of CVC charges, the reality is that there is a real cost in provisioning and dimensioning the network to accommodate rising data consumption.,” said NBN Co chief customer officer, residential Brad Whitcomb.

“We believe our bundled charges are the fairest way to implement a user-pays approach to wholesale pricing at this time.”

As such, according to Whitcomb, NBN Co believes the higher CVC inclusions proposed in the paper strike the right balance between helping RSPs to develop affordable offerings for end customers, giving service providers a platform where they can compete, while also allowing NBN Co to generate a “fair and reasonable return” to invest back into the network.

However, in an effort to provide RSPs with additional certainty around CVC, NBN Co’s proposals see an increase in CVC across most wholesale bundles discounts and, for the first time, the company will begin publishing a rolling two-year roadmap of future pricing with incremental annual increases in capacity inclusions on most bundle discounts to meet customers’ growing data demand.

“This roadmap is an important step in showing service providers that we are listening and taking decisive action to provide greater certainty to the industry,” Whitcomb said.

NBN Co has also taken the prospect of differential pricing for video streaming, dubbed a ‘Netflix tax’ by some pundits, off the table. According to the company, the majority of respondents in the first round of consultation highlighted streaming video as an important application driving the need for higher download speeds and more data inclusions.

While the company investigated the possibility of lowering the price of video traffic by differentiating video traffic flows during the initial consultation, only two RSPs supported the proposed initiative, leaving NBN Co to instead focus on ways to meet the challenge of growing video traffic by increasing CVC inclusions and making higher speeds more affordable. 

Going forward, the network builder expects to conduct annual, industry-based consultations to review and refine bundle discounts and inclusions. For now, the company is calling on further feedback from RSPs on the proposals in the consultation paper.

The final outcomes of the wholesale pricing consultation are expected to be announced in November 2019.