Fibre, copper and telcos

There’s been a number of news stories on the Government’s Telecommunications Amendment Bill, which is currently before the Finance & Expenditure Select Committee. A typical story is this one at Computerworld.

The telecommunications sector is always somewhat controversial, but this bill has attracted criticism from just about everyone – telcos, ISPs, the Commerce Commissions and user groups. This post is aimed to explain what the debate is about, and reflects my views.

It is worth noting that most of what is in the TAB is not controversial, and is generally well supported.

Three aspects which are controversial are:

  1. a “regulatory holiday” for the local companies until 31 December 2019.
  2. “re-averaging” the costs of local loop unbundling and unbundled bitstream, which will lower the wholesale cost in rural areas but increase the wholesale cost in urban areas by around 20%
  3. possible structural separation of if they win the majority of regions for fibre rollout

In this post I will leave (3) for now as that little baby is so complicated it needs its own post. I want to focus on (1) and (2) and these will apply (if passed) regardless of whether Telecom wins most of the regions for urban fibre, or the lines companies led by Vector win most of the regions.

You may ask why would the Government consider giving the future fibre companies an exemption from the normal regulatory oversight of the ? Well the short answer is because the companies bidding to be future fibre companies have asked for it.

Okay well companies ask for lots of things from the Government. Many companies would like to be exempt from the Commerce Commission until 2010. Why would the Government agree to this?

The answer is because then the bidders will make better bids. They value having a regulatory holiday, so they will agree to roll out more fibre for the same subsidy. It is what Sir Roger Douglas (very perceptively) said was a regulatory subsidy instead of a greater direct financual subsidy.

Now before we talk about the pros and cons of this approach, you need to know the background. In the 2008 election National pledged $1.5b towards having ultra-fast rolled out to 75% of NZ over the next decade. This was a lot of money (Labour committed only $300m – 1/5th of what National did) and it was in my opinion a great policy.

Work done by the NZ Institute concluded that investing in ultra-fast broadband, would result in significantly higher economic growth, and there is evidence from other countries to back this view up.

Now the cost of rolling out fibre to 75% of NZ is hard enough to estimate, let alone what the direct commercial returns will be on doing so in ten years time. The amount of subsidy needed to achieve the 75% target was estimated at $1.5 billion, but this was an estimate. An opposition does not have the resources available to get a precise projection, and even when you do have access in Government to Treasury, even then projections can be wrong.

To some degree one was never going to know until the actual commercial negotiations conclude, whether $1.5b was enough. InternetNZ did try to get some idea of how much it would cost to reaach the goal of 75%, and what would be the best way to go about it. They (which includes me)  commissioned a report from Network Strategies, a specialist economics consulting firm, which is here.  It was published in 2008.

The report concluded that the cost of fibre to 75% of NZ was around $3.3b if one utilised existing utility companies for at least half of it, and that the government’s contribution would need to be around $1.75b. So the $1.5b was a pretty good estimate, but may be not quite enough.

So this takes us back to why the Government is seeking to legislate a regulatory holiday – it makes it more attractive to its potential commercial partners, and helps close the gap. So the motivation is good – to save the taxpayer money.

However that does not mean it is the right decision. If there is a funding gap between the 75% target and what you can achieve with $1.5b, I would rather it be dealt with directly, not indirectly by way of regulatory holiday. Options are to increase the $1.55b on offer, or to reduce the coverage area from say 75% to 70% or push out the timeframe from say 10 years to 12 years etc.

The concern over the regulatory holiday is that whomever wins the contract, will be exempt from the Commerce Commission regulating access to their services until 2010. The Government will be relying just on the contracts they had to regulate the price, However this places Crown Fibre Holdings in the unenviable dual role of being an investor and a regulator. Also 2020 is almost nine years away, and that is a lifetime in the Internet world. The costs and prices of fibre and data may have changed massively in that time. Many people are very nervous about what could happen in the next nine years. This is partly because of the lessons from the past with Telecom (note again they may not be the fibre companies).

Now the Minister has pointed out that as the local fibre companies can not be owned by a company that will provide retail services over them, then it is less likely there will be a need for regulation, as the fibre companies should operate on an open access platform to all providers. But a lot of devil is in the detail. For example you could have Chorus (if they win) saying it will operate a volume discount scheme that only Telecom Retail will qualify for due to its size.

The Minister also says that as the fibre products will be competing against the regulated copper and that the challenge will be ensuring uptake, which will keep prices down also. I suspect Steven is right on the prices – but from my thinking why remove the safety net of the Commerce Commission, in case you’re not.

Now the other major change is that the calculation of costs and hence prices for the current copper based broadband services is to change from deaveraged to reaveraged. At present the costs and prices reflect the fact it is cheaper in urban areas than rural areas. The Government is proposing to legislate to change this, which means the price of broadband over copper will increase in urban areas. The estimate I have seen is by 20%.

So again why would you do this? The answer is the same. It means those bidding for the fibre contracts will be motivated to invest more money into them. Because if the price of broadband over copper increases, then you can be confident that more customers will switch over to broadband over fibre.

So again the rationale is quite understandable, but again that does not mean it is necessairly a good thing. It means people in urban NZ will pay higher prices than they should for broadband over copper for the next six years or so. Should the Government be effectively tilting the playing field to favour fibre over copper?  Again I’m in favour of tilting the field by way of Government subsidy, but not in favour of tilting the field by interfering with a regulatory regime that actually has worked very well in the last few years.

As I said, in a separate post, I’ll cover the possible structural separation of Telecom, and how this may result in a really great outcome or a really lousy outcome, depending on how the structural separation is done. And the consequences of getting it wrong will reverbate for a couple of decades. This is not something to rush.

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