- Now that's what I call service
So we're to unbundle the local loop. It's the last great adventure for the telecommunications industry – from here on in it should get very boring and that's a good thing. Why? Because it means the industry is working and getting on with things without the fuss and palaver of regulation, foot dragging anti-competitive nonsense. Instead we'll be able to write about the new prices, the new services, the new capability. No more bemoaning the lack of competition, no more fretting about being left behind by the rest of the telecommunications world, no more rationing of a service just because we want to keep our markets nice and static.
If they can't get it right from here on in, they have only themselves to blame.
So, on with the good stuff. When can we expect to see new services and prices from the players? Well, it'll take a while. In Australia the commissioner there gave Telstra a year to get its act together and unbundle properly. This it duly did after much wailing and gnashing of teeth. We can expect the same from Telecom I would expect so it'll be a year at least before the other telcos are in a position to offer their own products. That's if we do it at all – don't forget, this is a draft ruling and will be finalised by the end of the year and even then has to be accepted by the government as a good thing.
That acceptance isn't a foregone conclusion, either. Although the government has so far accepted all of the commissioner's rulings without question, in public at any rate, a move as big as unbundling will require cabinet to sit down and discuss the matter at length. Let's not forget, this is the government which declined to unbundle in the first place.
Telecom, you see, has two things in its favour. Firstly, it's one of our biggest companies and if it gets the jitters, the NZX catches cold. Secondly, it's one of our biggest companies and spends a lot of money on lobbying. I think it's quite telling that the spokesman who stood up on behalf of Telecom for the announcement isn't the usual government relations man, or the chief executive, or the public affairs manager. It's the chief counsel, the top lawyer at Telecom. What does that tell you about the way they're thinking?
Lobbying isn't something we get a lot of in New Zealand. Our MPs aren't used to it, they are clearly flattered by it and that's not good for those of us who aren't one of the country's largest companies and able to lobby in a similar manner.
We have an advantage, however. We all vote and Telecom doesn't get to do that since Telecom doesn't exist. If you are concerned about the matter it would probably pay to drop your MP a line or give them a call. I would suggest calling MPs rather than the minister of communications because he already understands what's going on whereas the others tend not to know. Give them a clue, OK?
So assuming the final report is similar to the draft, and assuming government agrees to initiate it's finding, and assuming those findings are put into place immediately and assuming Telecom moves sharpishly and all the other telcos are given quick and ready access, we're about a year away from seeing any result of the decision. Here at the coalface of telecommunications, we're used to such delays but they are so frustrating as to be beyond belief. We've had this new telco environment for two years now and prices haven't budged one little bit. Now we're going to have to wait another year but by crikey they'd better budge then, I can tell you. Otherwise it's back to the bean cans and string for me.
So far I haven't managed to talk to everyone about this. I'm typing this in Hamilton in my in-laws' lounge after a day spent talking about broadband with the TUANZ (Telecommunications Users Association) roadshow. Unfortunately, due to the vagaries of cellsite design, neither my phone nor my laptop worked in the conference venue unless I stood on one leg with the aerial pointing out of a north-easterly window. This I duly did several times to clear voicemail but my email stubbornly refused to connect for the most part. Lotus Notes is a bulky beast at the best of times and when confronted with less than its preferred 25Mbit/s connection, it steadfastly declined to show me the goods. However, my colleagues at Computerworld's weekly paper edition were all over it like a rash so that was good.
I did talk to Ernie Newman, TUANZ chief and long-time unbundling advocate, and he was of course thrilled with the result. We're one of the last countries in the developed world to mandate unbundling and Ernie, who happens to chair the international telecommunications user group, Intug, has seen unbundling working elsewhere.
I also talked to Rosemary Howard who was, as you would imagine, like a puppy with two tails. Unbundling is great news for TelstraClear because it no longer has to consider building its own network to offer services. TelstraClear has long wanted access to the network at this level so it can design and build its own products and solutions. Thus far it has got by as a reseller of Telecom's products - except where it has its own fibre network - rather than being able to use Telecom's network to sell its services, and that grates.
Howard also believes the decision will encourage not only more local investment in the market, but also from overseas. This is an interesting point – at the moment we're faced with the prospect of companies like CallPlus putting its development effort into Australia rather than here because of a better likelihood of a good return on its money. Hopefully Malcolm Dick will reconsider that decision in light of the commissioner's ruling.
We could also expect to see companies from overseas more willing to set up here. I wonder about Comindico, the Australian broadband distributor which is making life exciting for Telstra in Australia by setting up as a wholesaler rather than retailer using Telstra's network.
On the wireless side of the coin, I spoke to Bob Smith, head of Woosh. Woosh, formerly Walker Wireless, is building its own network and hasn't been much of a fan of unbundling. It will allow competitors to offer broadband technology without investing in a separate network build out. Woosh, on the other hand, is committed to spending millions of dollars on wireless services.
Smith says the decision doesn't change the company's plans at all as it always wanted to build its own network. Woosh's technology leapfrogs the local loop, he says, and so it's not an issue for it. He's right – the local loop can't solve all our broadband problems and in the future could well be superseded by other technologies, like Woosh's W-CDMA. However, for now, it's not only the cheapest broadband product in terms of network rollout, it's the fastest rollout because it's already there.
I received Telecom's press release, which described the decision as "illogical". I can only repeat commissioner Douglas Webb's words to Telecom on the matter. We can either have a small number of people using a very expensive service or we can have a large number using a less expensive service. Telecom will build its wholesale market while losing some of its retail market but overall it will retain the lion's share of the telecommunications space. It cannot do otherwise – it owns a cellular network as well as the local loop. It has contracts with nearly every household in New Zealand and unless something radical happens it will remain the Telecommunications Share Obligation telco of choice. Telecom won't be forced to give away its connection – it's only to sell it at a wholesale rate instead of the way it currently does.
No doubt we'll hear a lot more about unbundling from all the parties in the coming months. The draft ruling runs to over 200 pages of carefully considered arguments and whether you agree or disagree with the outcome, nobody can escape from the fact that this is the biggest thing to happen to telecommunications in New Zealand since Telecom was privatised more than a decade ago.
- Now that's what I call service
This has to go down as the fastest response to a service question I've ever received. Within 90 seconds of sending an email off to Fisher & Paykel to ask how I can lock my dishwasher control panel (enquiring minds, especially my daughter, need to know how to push the buttons and trigger the wash cycle but will she rinse and stack the dishes? No, she won't) I received a reply. Not an automated reply, but a real one from Jenny Stronge at F&P telling me how to use the key lock button.
Is this a world record? I think it might just be. It was so fast I thought it was an auto-response and nearly deleted it. Full credit I say. Well done.