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.

Telstra base station warning: “We didn’t get it right this time”

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has cautioned Telstra, after it was found to have failed to comply with rules governing the deployment of mobile phone base stations in Australia.

The formal warning, which effectively puts Telstra on notice to minimise the risk of future breaches and ensure regulatory compliance, comes after an investigation by the country’s communications industry regulator into the telco’s rollout of mobile network infrastructure at a site in Canberra, evidently without adequate community consultation.

The ACMA investigated the company after a resident made a complaint. The investigation revealed that Telstra had contravened sections of the Mobile Phone Base Station Deployment Code in at least three ways.

According to the ACMA, Telstra failed to fully comply with its consultation plan, which would have required it to contact residents in the immediate vicinity of the base station.

The investigation also found Telstra had contravened the rules by not sending a letter containing the information to all interested and affected parties, and not acknowledging a written complaint within ten business days of its receipt.

For its part, Telstra has already taken steps to avoid similar problems in the future, including reviewing its contractor complaints handling procedures and implementing regular training.

“Consulting with local communities on new mobile towers is an important step in expanding our coverage and we didn’t get that right this time. We’ve looked at where we fell short of what’s expected and we’ll make sure we get it right next time,” a Telstra spokesperson told Telecom Times.

According to the ACMA, the rules in the code are aimed at ensuring telecommunications infrastructure providers give local councils and local communities a chance to have their say before deploying mobile network infrastructure.

“There is public concern about the rollout of mobile infrastructure, including small cell base stations, in residential areas,’ ACMA Chair Nerida O’Loughlin said. “Telcos must keep affected communities in the loop and consider their feedback when establishing or upgrading mobile phone base stations.”

According to the ACMA, this is the second such action taken by the regulator in the past six months as part of its efforts to ensure mobile carriers comply with the country’s base station deployment rules.

ACCC fixes software glitch behind early TPG-VHA merger rejection announcement

Australia’s competition watchdog has patched its website content management system (CMS) and apologised, after publishing its decision on TPG’s proposed merger with Vodafone Hutchison Australia (VHA) before it was meant to be made public.

In a somewhat unprecedented move, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) released a statement on 16 May explaining how it accidentally published its rejection of the proposed TPG-VHA Australia merger a day before it was expected to reveal its decision.

“We apologise unreservedly for this unfortunate and serious incident,” ACCC chief operating officer Rayne de Gruchy said.

“We have thoroughly reviewed all of the processes and information technology systems that led to this error, and we want to assure our stakeholders this incident will not be repeated,” she said.

The publication of the decision to reject the merger sent the share price of both TPG and VHA’s 50 percent stakeholder Hutchison Telecommunications tumbling.

The ACCC said it had conducted a full investigation into the incident and claims that a fault in its website CMS, which has now been rectified thanks to a software patch, was to blame.

According to the regulator, when the information relating to the merger was being put into the back end of the mergers register, a third-party user was trying to access the existing webpage at the same moment as it was being updated.

“Instead of the new information being treated as draft content requiring internal approval, the flaw meant the content was live for eight minutes,” the ACCC said in its statement.

The information went live just before 3PM, giving the ACCC the opportunity to quickly issue a statement confirming the merger decision to both the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) before the end of the trading day.

The ACCC’s rejection of the merger, which could effectively put an end to TPG’s ongoing efforts to become a major player in the country’s mobile telco market, saw VHA and TPG move to launch legal action against the regulator over the decision.

VHA CEO Iñaki Berroeta said on 9 May that the company remains firmly committed to the merger.

“VHA respects the ACCC process, but we believe the merger with TPG will bring very real benefits to consumers.  We have therefore decided that VHA should, together with TPG, pursue approval of the merger through the Federal Court,” said Berroeta.

The merger agreement between VHA and TPG has been extended to 31 August 2020 to allow the legal proceedings to run their course before the proposed deal lapses.

Fixed line data dominates Australia’s download tally despite mobile internet surge

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Suggestions that Australia’s fixed line broadband data dominance is set to play second fiddle to mobile broadband services might need a reality check, with wireless broadband accounting for just three percent of the total data downloaded in the December quarter.

The latest figures from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) show that the vast majority – 91 percent – of all internet downloads were served by fixed line broadband services in the three months ending December 2018. According to the ACCC, Australians downloaded approximately 5.1 million terabytes in the quarter.

This is despite reports that 5G broadband offerings by some of Australia’s leading mobile telcos have the potential to disrupt the ongoing viability of fixed line broadband services provided by the country’s somewhat beleaguered National Broadband Network (NBN).

According to the ACCC’s Internet Activity Report – December 2018 [PDF], released on 14 May, the total volume of data downloaded in the three months ending December was 5.1 million terabytes, with fibre internet connections accounting for the greatest majority proportion of total; fixed line/wired connections, followed by DSL.

According to the report, there was a substantially smaller amount of data downloaded via mobile handsets and wireless broadband over the same period, with the wireless technologies representing six percent and three percent of the overall data download volume in its entirety during the period.

By comparison, around six percent of the broadband data downloaded in Australia during the period was done so via mobile handsets, and approximately three percent via wireless broadband.

However, the latest figures also show that the most common way consumers accessed the internet during the period was through mobile handsets, with 24.3 million of the estimated 39.9 million broadband services in operation during the quarter being attributed to mobile handsets.

“This report provides a clear indication that while consumers are most often using their phones to access the internet, when downloading significant content they currently favour fixed line connections,” ACCC Commissioner Cristina Cifuentes said.

At the same time, the report suggested that the imminent arrival of 5G products and services will likely support greater increases in the volume of data downloaded via mobile handsets and wireless broadband access technologies.

All in all, the ACCC estimates that the total number of retail broadband services in operation (SIOs) reached 39.9 million as of the end of last year, with 24.3 million of these services made up of mobile handsets, 8.4 million wireless broadband and 7.2 million fixed-line or wired broadband.

To put this into context, Australia’s population was 25,370, 917 at the time of writing, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

Australians’ international roaming bill put at $1.4B

Australian mobile phone users have spent somewhere in the vicinity of $1.4 billion on international roaming fees, according to new estimates by market research agency YouGov Galaxy.

The study, commissioned by Vodafone Australia as a vehicle to tout the telco’s $5-per-day international roaming product, suggests that up to 5 million Australians have been subjected to international roaming fees.

Of these 5 million people — who represent about 41 percent of smartphone owners in Australia — the average international roaming fee per person comes to $290, the research suggests, equating to about $1.45 billion in total. It should be noted that this figure is not restricted to a particular period of time.

The study also suggests that around 250,000 Australians claim to have paid more than $1,000 in international roaming fees.

Interestingly, the research found that Australian Baby Boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — were far less likely to have been charged international roaming fees than younger Australians, with just 29 percent having paid roaming fees. This is compared to 45 percent and 51 percent for Millenials and Gen X, respectively.

Regardless of the billion-dollar estimated total amount paid for international roaming by Australians, Vodafone Australia’s chief commercial officer Ben McIntosh claims that just 3 percent of smartphone users will continue to use their phone as normal while travelling.

While this percentage may seem small, international roaming has been under some scrutiny recently, with the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) wrapping up a review of the International Mobile Roaming (IMR) Standard in Australia in October last year.

According to the review’s report, released in October 2018, there were some key areas found that could be improved upon “to make regulation more flexible in light of changes to mobile phone use overseas”.

“TIO [Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman] data indicates that complaints to it about IMR services has risen again in recent years. While complaint numbers remain low, the amounts in dispute per complaint can be high,” the report said.

The Vodafone-commissioned YouGov Galaxy study comes just a few months after industry analysis firm Juniper Research found that operator revenues from international mobile roaming are expected to remain flat over the next four years, representing about 6 percent of total operator-billed revenues and $51 billion in value.

Which major Aussie city suffers from the slowest mobile download speeds?

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Of Australia’s five largest cities, Sydney experienced the slowest average mobile download speeds across the country’s three big wireless network providers, Telstra, Optus and Vodafone, during the three months ending 31 March, new research shows.

In Sydney, the average mobile download speed experience across all three of the major mobile operators during the three-month period was 40.3 megabits per second (Mbps), based on figures in new analysis by mobile analytics firm Opensignal.

The 40.3 Mbps download scorecard for Sydney was drawn from an average mobile download rate of 48.6 Mbps for Telstra, 39.1 Mbps for Optus and 33.3 Mbps from Vodafone, as outlined in Opensignal’s latest Australia Mobile Network Experience Report, which took in over 489 million measurements from some 110,000 devices during the period.

For Melbourne, the average download speed across the three mobile network providers came to 41.2 Mbps, with Telstra in the lead at an average of 48.8 Mbps during the period, followed by Vodafone with 38.5 Mbps and Optus, which claimed an average of 36.3 Mbps.

Meanwhile, Perth saw an average download speed experience of 50.6 Mbps from Telstra, 38.6 Mbps from Optus and 35.8 Mbps from Vodafone, equating to an average download speed of 41.7 Mbps across all providers during the period.

According to the research, Telstra scored an average download speed experience of 55.7 Mbps in Brisbane, with Optus and Vodafone trailing with 38.9 Mbps and 34.9 Mbps, respectively — equating to an average of 43.2 Mbps across all three providers.

Adelaide enjoyed the fastest speed overall, compared to the other major cities, seeing an average download speed during the period of 47.6 Mbps across all three providers, with Telstra, Optus and Vodafone claiming 63.2 Mbps, 43 Mbps and 36.7 Mbps, respectively.

Opensignal’s research also revealed that, across the country, Telstra claimed an average download speed experience of 41.1 Mbps, putting it in top place in terms of download speed, followed by Optus and Vodafone, both of which claimed average download speeds of over 30 Mbps — 36.4 Mbps and 32.8 Mbps, respectively.

Additionally, the report revealed that, on a national scale, Optus claims the highest 4G availability rating, with an availability score of 91.9 percent, followed by Vodafone with a score of 90.3 percent and Telstra with a score of 89.4 percent.

Meanwhile, Optus and Vodafone drew in terms of latency, with Optus claiming an average latency experience of 34.6 milliseconds (ms), compared to Vodafone’s 34.4 ms. For its part, Telstra’s average latency experience over the period was 41.8 ms, according to the report.

Android adware installed 30M times before being pulled from Google Play Store

Android apps laden with adware were installed more than 30 million times before being removed from the Google Play Store, according to cyber security software provider Avast.

The company said in a blog published on 23 April that it discovered 50 adware apps on the Google Play Store, with installations of the apps in question ranging from 5,000 to 5 million.

According to Avast, the adware it found can be a nuisance for those who inadvertently installed it on their phones, as it results in persistent displays of full-screen ads. It also occasionally tries to convince users to install additional apps, the cyber security company said.

The Avast research uncovered two versions of the adware, which the company said tapped into third party Android libraries in a bid to bypass background service restrictions in newer versions of the mobile operating system. This let the adware display more and more ads to users — something that is against Google Play Store rules.

Of the two versions of the adware that was discovered, ‘version A’ was installed 3.6 million times, largely contained in game, fitness and photo editing apps, according to Avast. The ‘version B’ adware, meanwhile, was installed nearly 28 million times, and was included in fitness and music apps.

An example of one of the apps containing the adware (Source: Avast)

Avast claims the that the samples it found have since been removed from the Google Play Store, but not before tha adware was installed at least 30 million times by unwitting smartphone users around the world.

As noted by ZDNet, the disclosure of the adware discovery by Avast comes just days after fellow cyber security provider Checkpoint revealed its researchers had uncovered a series of apps found on the Google Play Store that were conducting fraudulent activities against ad agencies.

“In total, the malware was downloaded over 90 million times across 6 applications. Google was notified and removed the infected applications from Google Play,” Checkpoint said in a blog posted on 19 April.

According to Checkpoint, the so-called ‘PreAMo’ malware found in from leads fed to the researchers imitates the user by clicking on banners retrieved from three ad agencies: Presage, Admob and Mopub.