Telco Act yet to deliver for users

It's the holiday season and that means it's time to review what the first 12 months of the Telecommunications Act have brought us.

It's the holiday season and that means it's time to review what the first 12 months of the Telecommunications Act have brought us.

Well then ... er, thanks for stopping by ... next week we'll have a look at the progress being made on the international space station.

Okay, so maybe it's not that bad -- but it's darned near.

If nothing else, it's been a busy time since the act came into being at the end of last year. Telecom has demanded that TelstraClear be assessed. TelstraClear has demanded that Telecom be assessed. There has been an entertaining amount of email traffic from the two about wholesaling, interconnection, number portability and so on.

Threats have been made. Dummies have been spat, toys have been thrown from cots, serious tantrums are in the offing. It's reached the point now where both companies have held media Christmas events on the same day and are amazingly now keen for my company at competing events in the new year as well.

While this has all been very entertaining and given us telco watchers something to write about, what about the end users? What about the businesses and residential customers who buy telco services? What have you gained from it so far?

I'll tell you if you like, though you've probably already noticed. It's a big fat zero. Zip, zilch, nichts, nada, nothing. No new services. No reductions in cost. You might say that the market is more competive, clamouring for your telco dollar. As colleague David Watson pointed out a few weeks ago, now is probably a great time to renegotiate those contracts and squeeze the provider a little. But in fact that's due to the collapse of the telco market worldwide and its ensuing bunfight.

What's that you say? TelstraClear has won a significant reduction in the cost of connecting to Telecom's network? Yes, but it's signalled there will be debt to reduce before any of the savings are passed on to customers. WorldxChange has likewise said customers won't see price cuts but instead the company investing in its own network.

There is innovation. Vodafone is doing a stirling job of selling its GPRS network for mobile business users. Walker Wireless has its "portable broadband" solution and RoamAD has the noisiest of marketing pushes to help convince everyone that it has a Wi-Fi solution to beat them all. There are power line companies desperately keen for a share of the broadband money, and let's not forget CityLink with its own wireless set-up, CafeNet .

Would any of this have come about without the telco act? Almost certainly. They were developed before the act came in, and would have been introduced either with or without the act.

What we aren't seeing is any cost reduction for services. Bandwidth is still too costly for many customers at the lower end of the spectrum -- home and small business users, for example. Telecom has signalled it will rethink the billing procedure for JetStream following the trial of its JetVideo movies on demand service. It will have to, because if it billed customers for JetVideo at its current rate customers would be shelling out roughly $200 at 20 cents per megabyte for each movie. Clearly not an option unless you're really keen on seeing The Two Towers. If you think that's bad, Mobile JetStream users should run screaming from the room because on the casual user plan ($8 per megabyte) a 2GB movie comes in at $16,000.

Is this the way of life from here on in? Prices not dropping and telcos making fatter profits? I'd be complaining to the commissioner myself if that were the case. Except I can't. There is no provision in the act for a telco ombudsman office.

But that aside, the act has provided us with a new framework and I for one wouldn't want to return to the bad old days. Next year we should see even more clearing of the decks as the commissioner answers more industry problems and takes a look at unbundling the local loop. Whether that happens or not (the unbundling, not the looking), and at this stage I can't see it, at least some of the savings should trickle down. Shouldn't they?

Brislen is IDGNet’s reporter. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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