This is not your regulator's UBS

Confusion over broadband services isn't helping customers

When Telecommunications Commissioner Douglas Webb decided against recommending the unbundling of Telecom's national network, he suggested instead a partial solution called the Unbundled Bitstream Service, or UBS.

Now that Telecom has rolled out UBS, New Zealand's frustrated broadband users have only Webb to blame for low speeds and poor service levels, right?

Wrong. Telecom's service might be called UBS, which is convenient for the telco, but it ain't your regulator's UBS.

We’ve covered this issue in the past when UBS was launched, but it’s still cropping up and causing confusion among customers and providers alike. The key thing to remember is: Telecom’s commercial UBS does not have to follow the parameters set out in the Commerce Commission’s determination last year.

What this means is that the service parameters for Telecom’s “commercial proxy UBS” are self-imposed. There is no legally-mandated 128kbit/s upstream limit for Telecom’s service, and nor does it have to be “internet grade” with one second latency in each direction and unspecified packet loss.

In a recent speech in Wellington, the Minister of Communications, David Cunliffe, said as much when he identified the narrow upstream pipe as a major obstacle to quality broadband in New Zealand. Cunliffe says there are no impediments to offering higher upstream speeds — or improving other service parameters — for Telecom’s commercial service.

He is correct, but it begs the question why this simple fact isn't more widely understood. The mandarins in Wellington may think that their regulatory merry-go-rounds are exceedingly clever pieces of governance, but whose interest do they serve if they only confuse and slow the rollout of better broadband?

Why is the Government and the regulator even allowing Telecom to use “Unbundled Bitstream Service” in its marketing? It’s not the same as the regulated UBS, but how are customers to know?

Telecom must be grateful for receiving this regulatory smokescreen for free. When asked: “Why can’t Telecom offer at least some of the broadband services that overseas customers can get?”, Telecom points to the UBS determination, saying that’s the law. When drawn, Telecom’s people fudge the issue and say the current service is “an expectation” of what the Commerce Commission has specified in the determination.

Ultimately, the consequences of this bureaucratic obfuscation for residential and business customers is lower-quality broadband service than was available four to five years ago, albeit with more sensible pricing. It’s pedestrian broadband which doesn’t do much to entice people off dial-up.

Last year, the Commerce Commission even issued a press release pointing out that Telecom's UBS offering is not the Commission's regulated UBS. The Commission would be better off taking steps to prevent Telecom using the same name as the service that is described in the Telecommunications Act.

Saarinen is a Computerworld reporter

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