Lions, leopards and ducks, oh my!

The lambs heard great positive news from the lion before they found they were being eaten alive

The telecommunications industry brings to mind any number of animal metaphors. Douglas Webb has deployed a couple in his years as Telecommunications Commissioner.

A few years ago he referred to the media as the “barking dogs” of the industry. I can only assume he meant we were being vocal about the industry’s problems, rather than we were giving him sore feet, but I could be wrong.

This year, at the Tele.Con 7 conference, Webb likened Telecom and the telco industry to the lion and the lamb.

“I do not expect it will be easy for the ‘lion to lie down with the lamb’ without provoking suspicion and uneasiness, on the part of both the lion and the lamb,” Webb proclaimed. Rarely have truer words been spoken about the telco industry in this country.

The problem is that the lambs have heard great positive news from the lion before and, after going along with all the fine words, have found they were being eaten alive.

When Webb announced that he would not be recommending unbundling, back in 2003, Telecom immediately became quite contrite and, for want of a better word, humble in its approach to the rest of the industry. I remember Telecom’s general manager for business and industry relations, Bruce Parkes, who spoke of hearing the message from the industry loud and clear. He talked about Telecom needing a chance to prove itself and how, if it had the industry’s support, we would see what it was capable of.

Boy, did we ever see. As Webb himself later pointed out, no sooner had the Commission ruled on access to the unbundled bitstream service (UBS) than Telecom began trying to subvert the regulated service. It introduced new commercial terms and conditions — a churn fee, an aggregate traffic limit, ISPs not being allowed to offer fixed IP addresses and so on.

Now Telecom is once again asking the industry to trust its motives. Once again we’re being asked to take it at its word that it will work for the greater good rather than just for its shareholders. Can the leopard change its spots?

The biggest problem, as I see it, is that Telecom’s actions promise a continuation of the old hardline mentality. The Commission has announced that Telecom must offer competitors unconstrained bitstream access — that is, a service unfettered by any commercial limits. Gattung says the company will do this within the 18-week deadline set by the Commission. But, when challenged to offer faster upload speeds, she demurred.

We’d love to do it, she says, but we just can’t offer faster upload speeds at this time. The roadmap for Telecom is to initially offer unconstrained downloads, but with a 128kbit/s upload speed limit, and later to move to unconstrained speeds in both directions.

There are two problems with this. First, the download speed is, in part, dictated by the upload speed, so if uploads are limited to 128kbit/s the download speed won’t get much above the speeds offered today.

Second, Telecom already offers a totally unconstrained service and has done so since 1999. I know because I used it for the best part of five years. I got about 6Mbit/s downstream and 600kbit/s upstream. Sadly, the traffic limits offered made it a financially ruinous service, but that’s beside the point. Telecom offers the service as a retail service, so it should offer it at as a wholesale service, too.

To finish with the animal metaphors, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck then maybe it is a duck. Let’s hope it won’t be a lame one.

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