ComCom: No regulation for NZ mobile – but 5G spectrum auctions need close attention

New Zealand’s Commerce Commission has given a thumbs up for the Kiwi mobile market  – and a thumbs down to any regulatory intervention – saying it’s a competitive market, serving customers well.

The Mobile Market Study final report says New Zealand’s mobile consumers are benefiting from an increasingly competitive market environment with market share among the three national players – Vodafone, Spark and 2degrees – has become more evenly balanced, with 2degrees taking more market share.

The report shows Vodafone and Spark still hold the lion’s share of the market, with 40.5 percent and 37.9 percent of subscribers, with 2degrees, which entered the market in 2009, now holding 20.5 percent of the market.

“We haven’t identified any particular problems or structural issues that could be hampering competition,” says Telecommunications Commissioner Stephen Gale of the report findings.

Unsurprisingly the findings were welcomed by Vodafone, Spark and 2degrees.

The study also shows an emerging market for ‘virtual’ operators selling mobile services without having to build their own mobile network.

The mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) holds just 1.1 percent market share, but has seen growth in recent months with companies including Vocus – which earlier this year slammed the preliminary Mobile Market report – Warehouse Mobile and Kogan entering the market. Trustpower also plans to enter the fray, bundling mobile offers with its existing broadband and energy services.

“Because of these developments, the Commission does not consider there is any need for regulation of wholesale access at this time,” the Commerce Commission says.

But Gale flagged the need for wholesale and retail competition matters to be at the forefront of decisions relating to the upcoming auction of radio spectrum for 5G services in order to ensure continued competition.

“With Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees each having a network of similar technology with similar geographic and population coverage metrics, looking forward we consider the allocation of spectrum to be particularly important for future competition,” Gale says.

The report, instigated back in 2017, comes as Vodafone and Spark jockey for 5G leadership. Vodafone has been testing 5G with plans to have a commercial service up and running in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown in December.

Meanwhile Spark – which had its original 5G plans shot down by the New Zealand Government Communications Security Bureau over Huawei network security concerns – has launched a limited, invitation only, 5G service in Alexandra. The service uses Nokia technology.

When is unlimited not unlimited?

When it come to the services Kiwis are receiving from their mobile telco providers, the report notes that New Zealand’s 4G performance is ranked eighth out of 88 countries in an OpenSignal report, though the availability of 4G at 57th out of 87 countries.

It notes that mobile plans offering higher volumes of data are increasingly popular. To highlight that, it noted the total number of residential subscribers purchasing voice, SMS and data bundles with allowances of 3G or more was up from 133,000 in 2016 to 497,000 in 2018.

Spark, in its cross submission on the reports preliminary findings paper, noted a shift towards unlimited data plans, including ones that can be shared across several users, as a predominant trend in the retail market.

However, Teligen, which does telco benchmarking, much of which the ComCom report relies on, no longer considers New Zealand’s ‘unlimited’ data plans to qualify as unlimited, because of telco’s throttling the speed once a threshold has been reached.

The average volume of data used by mobile consumers was 2GB per month in 2018 – a figure the report says is growing strongly.

Prices for mobile services in New Zealand have been falling and compare well with other OECD countries, the report notes – though not all fare so well compared with Australia, with mobile prices per GB for the highest data plans offered in New Zealand coming in around NZ$80-$85, versus NZ$56 from Vodafone Australia and NZ$103 for Telstra.

“For the 2G and 5G  baskets, the New Zealand price reported by Teligen is currently at or below the OECD average.”

For larger baskets, however, mobile pricing in New Zealand is relatively high when compared to Australia, but below the OECD average.

One area the report does note a need for change is in the low number of consumers moving telco plans. Sixty-eight percent say they rarely, if ever, compare plans and 54 percent saying they haven’t switched providers in the past five years.

“By shopping around more frequently consumers are likely to trigger more competition between mobile providers,” Gale says.

“We are keen to see more consumer activity and will be looking into ways we can help New Zealanders understand whether they are getting the best deal possible and, if not, consider switching.”

However, in response, Vodafone NZ says its data shows a high number of Vodafone customers change the make-up of their mobile plans each year – if not their provider.

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 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.

BVivid coughs up A$25K over NBN cold-call tactics

Telecommunications provider BVivid has been hit by more than A$25,000 in penalties for making telemarketing calls that “likely misled” consumers transitioning to the National Broadband Network (NBN).

BVivid provides a number of telecommunications services to Australian businesses and individual consumers, including fixed phone, ADSL and NBN services.

According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), BVivid cold-called consumers from October 2017 to at least May 2018 and told them that their internet services would be disconnected or that they would lose their telephone number if they did not move to the NBN immediately.

The ACCC said that the company, through a wholly-owned subsidiary in India, employed staff in India to promote its services by unsolicited telephone marketing to prospective consumers in Australia.

In some cases, the representations made by the telemarketers prompted customers to transfer from their current telecommunications services provider to BVivid without understanding the full nature of the NBN migration process or the services they were signing up to.

“BVivid’s calls likely misled consumers and gave them a false sense of urgency and need,” said ACCC Commissioner Sarah Court. “Consumers generally have 18 months from when the NBN becomes available in their area to switch before being at risk of disconnection.”

After being issued with two infringement notices by the ACCC over the cold-calling conduct, the company has paid A$25,200 in penalties and has admitted to likely breached the Australian Consumer Law (ACL).

BVivid has also admitted that it likely breached the unsolicited consumer agreement protections in the ACL after providing services within the cooling-off period while failing to give customers a form they could use to terminate the contract.

“We are of the view that BVivid did not meet all their obligations to consumers who were subjected to their unsolicited marketing practices,” Court said.

“Consumers who find themselves signed up to a contract as a result of unsolicited marketing can cancel their contract without penalty within 10 business days of signing without needing to provide a reason,” she said.

According to the ACCC, the court enforceable undertaking it has accepted from BVivid in response to the action will also see the telco provide redress for customers affected by its conduct by allowing them to terminate their contract without penalty.

The undertaking will also see BVivid commission an independent review of all of its policies, practices and procedures relating to its sales and transfer methodology to ensure compliance with the ACL, among other measures.

Aussie telcos ordered to keep blocking sites hosting Christchurch terror footage

The federal government has ordered Australia’s largest internet service providers (ISPs) to keep blocking eight websites hosting footage of the terrorist attacks last March in Christchurch, New Zealand along with the manifesto of the alleged gunman.

The direction, issued by the office of the government’s eSafety Commissioner on 9 September, compels ISPs to implement a six month block, during which time the eSafety Commissioner will review and remove sites from the list if and when the offending content is taken down.

The action comes several months after the country’s major telcos, including Optus, Telstra and Vodafone, independently moved to block more than 40 websites that were hosting video of the attacks or the manifesto of the alleged perpetrator in the days immediately following the Christchurch attacks.

The ISPs, as members of a task force subsequently set up by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and tasked with looking into terror and violent online content, pressed the Government to provide some direction, given that the ISPs did not have a clear legal footing for the action they had taken independently.

As such, the new direction, the first of its kind exercised by the eSafety Commissioner, is expected to offer ISPs certainty to continue their blocking activities, while also clearing the way for ISPs to remove the blocks they had voluntarily placed on other websites that have since taken down the material.

“Australian internet service providers acted quickly and responsibly in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Christchurch in March this year to block websites that were hosting this harmful material,” said Paul Fletcher, Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts.

“ISPs called on the Government to provide them with certainty and clarity in taking the action they did, and today, we are providing that certainty,” he said.

The eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant, meanwhile, has consulted with both ISPs and website administrators, giving the websites in question “ample opportunity” to remove the content.

“Those hosting this material do so in the full knowledge that Australia will take action to halt its continued proliferation,” Inman Grant said. “The remaining rogue websites need only to remove the illegal content to have the block against them lifted.”

According to John Stanton, CEO of telecommunications industry body Communications Alliance, the direction has been welcomed by the country’s ISPs.

“Industry recognised that this was the right thing to do, without explicit Government direction, and we are pleased to see the framework that is now in place as a result of constructive collaboration between industry, government and its agencies,” he said.

The eSafety Commissioner is continuing to work with industry to develop an additional protocol to govern the rapid removal of terrorist and extreme violent material in a crisis event which, according to Inman, is expected to be undertaken infrequently.

“The decision to block websites will be taken only under extraordinary circumstances and will need to meet an extremely high threshold,” said Inman Grant.

Aborted mobile rollout leaves A$237m dent in TPG financials

TPG Telecom’s (ASX:TPM) aborted mobile network rollout plans have hit the telecommunications provider’s finances for the year to the tune of A$236.8 million.

The publicly-listed telco halted its mobile network rollout in January after the Australian Government banned the use of equipment made by Chinese telecommunications manufacturer Huawei – slated to be a key equipment supplier for the network – in Australian 5G networks.

In its preliminary financial report for the year ending July 2019, published on 5 September, TPG told shareholders that its decision to halt the rollout of its mobile network result in an impairment expense of $A236.8 million.

The scrapped rollout also led to an increase in amortisaton and interest expense related to mobile spectrum licences it bought to enable its mobile play, the company said.

The company’s results were also impacted by A$9 million in one-off transaction costs associated with its planned merger with Vodafone Hutchison Australia, which has been put on ice by the Australian competition watchdog.

On 30 August last year, TPG and Vodafone Hutchison Australia entered into an agreement to merge their two businesses and establish a combined entity that would boast both TPG’s fixed line infrastructure and Vodafone Australia’s mobile network.

However, the move was opposed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). TPG and Vodafone Australia subsequently launched legal proceedings in the Federal Court in a bid to have the decision reversed.

The case is set to be heard in the Federal Court from 10 September and wrap up within three weeks of that date. If the Court sides with TPG and Vodafone Australia, and the merger does eventually go ahead, the merged group will be listed on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) and renamed TPG Telecom Limited.

These factors, among others, contributed to a 56 percent tumble in TPG’s profit for the year, to A$175 million. The company’s preliminary reported earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA), meanwhile, came to $572.6 million, well short of the $A826.7 million it notched up the prior year.

However, TPG saw only a relatively minor 0.7 percent drop in revenue during the period, to nearly A$2.5 billion, although the company said that EBITDA continued to be adversely impacted by the loss of margin as DSL and home phone customers migrate to low margin National Broadband Network (NBN) services.

The effects of the NBN rollout are set to be felt for at least another year, with TPG telling shareholders that its 2020 financial year is expected to be the year that suffers the greatest impact from customer migration to the NBN. Indeed, the combined impact from residential DSL and home phone customers migrating to the NBN is expected to be around $85 million for the group.

TPG said that the annualisation of the deterioration of profitability of existing NBN customers experienced in the second half of the company’s 2019 financial year as a result of increased NBN wholesale cost per user is forecast to create a further NBN headwind for FY20 of approximately A$25 million.

It is anticipated that, by the end of FY20, TPG will have less than 15 percent of its residential broadband customer base remaining on ADSL, as more customers migrate to the NBN.

“Operating cost efficiency programs across the Group are expected to continue to deliver savings and another of growth is forecast for the Group’s Corporate Division but, in this peak year of NBN headwinds, organic growth for FY20 is not expected to be sufficient to offset the headwinds,” the company told shareholders.

Telstra to build ‘one of the world’s largest LTE underground networks’

Telstra’s Mining Services has flagged the development of an underground private 4G LTE network for South32’s Cannington mine in North West Queensland.

According to Telstra, the network, still in the pre-deployment stage, will initially be 6.5kms in length with the potential to expand further with subsequent stages. At full installation, it would be one of the largest underground mining LTE networks in the world using leaky feeder – a comms system used in underground mining and other tunnel environments – it added.

vSouth32’s Cannington mine is an underground silver, lead and zinc operation located 87 km south of McKinlay in North West Queensland. It is one of the world’s largest and lowest-cost single-mine producers of silver and lead.

“The push towards increasing mechanisation and automation of mining operations in Australia has driven greater demand for improved connectivity through all areas of mines and their processing facilities,” said Telstra Enterprise Group Executive Michael Ebeid. “These technologies – whether connecting staff, vehicles or sensors – require connections that are high throughput and low latency, and can ensure that critical control and monitoring systems can operate without interruption.”

“The network will deliver real-time operational data for operating transparency, condition monitoring and production improvements, ‘ he said.

A comprehensive evaluation and integration program has been developed as part of the deployment. This program accounts for the unique geology and composition of the South32 Cannington mine using LTE technology in a production-scale setting.

“Telstra will deploy the underground network using a private, virtualised core and LTE radio technologies distributed over leaky feeder cable using LTE-capable bi-directional amplifiers. Our analysis indicates this to be the most effective solution for underground miners, and is upgradeable to5G,” said Jeannette McGill, Head of Telstra Mining Services.

“Being private means that it will be a completely standalone mobile network,  independent from others such as Telstra’s public network. South32 Cannington will have its own equipment, SIM cards and unique network codes,” McGill added.

“Our goal is to establish an effective network that will assist South32 Cannington in driving safety, productivity and efficiency initiatives.”

Telstra said the combination of Ericsson mobile network equipment, its own radio spectrum, and leaky feeder solutions from specialist manufacturer METStech delivered a
key capability that has made extending LTE underground a more commercially realistic and safer prospect.