Structural Separation Options

Tom Pullar-Strecker writes:

The proposal that the Government take a direct stake in ’s network arm is alive and well, after briefly being misdiagnosed with an acute case of “copper-poisoning”.

Telecom chief executive Paul Reynolds was leaning towards a full demerger of Chorus when he briefed analysts on options for the possible breakup of Telecom on Thursday, the idea being that Telecom shareholders would be issued with shares in Chorus, which would become a separate listed company.

But the two options are not incompatible. The Government could take a stake in Chorus and the remaining shares could be distributed to Telecom shareholders. Indeed, that may be the best outcome. Nor is there a reason why Telecom shouldn’t be allowed to retain a minority stake in Chorus under that or any other scenario. The more investors the merrier.

I am supportive of structural separation of Telecom. And I believe the preferable way to do it, is to issue all existing share-holders direct shares in Chorus. Over time they would attract infrastructure investors seeking lower but safer returns, while Telecom would attract investors in a competitive higher profit arena.

I would place a limit of any “customer” of Chorus owning more than a certain percentage – say 5% or 10%.

It makes no sense for the Government to set up a separate company to partner with a demerged Chorus to lay to three-quarters of New Zealand under its ultrafast broadband (UFB) investment initiative. After talking to Mr Reynolds following the investor briefing, it is clear that is not what he is suggesting.

“We see a demerged business, somewhat related to the existing Chorus, containing both copper and fibre into which the Government and Crown Fibre Holdings could invest on a nationwide basis and with which others could partner. The concept is you are building one national access business that has copper and fibre in it.”

This is certainly an option. One could put the $1.5 billion into Chorus as capital, with special shares not requiring a dividend (for example).

However one has to also be careful with assuming that even a structurally separated Chorus is automatically the most efficient and effective provider of fibre to the home in all areas.

From what I have seen (including a detailed study of the likely costs), electricity lines companies (such as Vector) will be able to roll out fibre to the home considerably cheaper than telecommunication companies due to their existing assets and resources consents. Vector for example has a strong case in Auckland.

There may be a win-win though if Chorus sub-contracted work in certain areas to companies such as Vector and Citylink, if they can do the job more efficiently. Maybe Vector would even want to take a stake in a separated Chorus?

We also have Axia from Canada in the fray, with considerable experience in rolling out fibre. They also may be offering a cheaper or better option than a separated Chorus. I don’t know, not having seen their bids.

I regard it as a major plus, that the process to date has led to Telecom willing to go down the structural separation path. However that does not mean they are automatically the successful bidder.

The decisions in this area will have a profound impact on NZ infrastructure for the next 30+ years. For my 2c the Government should not rush into a decision. It is much more important to get this right, than to worry about whether or not the actual roll-out starts on schedule.

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