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Griffin on Tech: Telco industry needs to get its story straight

Peter Griffin, Contributor. 06 August 2021, 8:29 am

A few weeks ago my 78 year-old father called to tell me his broadband connection was being upgraded.

"Oh great," I said, "you are finally moving onto the ultra-fast broadband network. Welcome to the 21st century!"

He paused, and proceeded to read out the letter from his broadband provider. 

"It doesn't say anything about UFB in there," he said.

It turns out he wasn't destined for the UFB network he helped fund with his taxpayer dollars. He was being shifted from his perfectly fine copper-line broadband connection to a wireless service that effectively runs over the mobile network. This was a decision made by his retirement village on behalf of all residents.

That's despite the fact that the village is about to be upgraded to UFB, the shiny, gold-plated standard in broadband access. My father, his neighbours and the rest home managers didn't really know the difference. 

They got a good marketing pitch to shift and they did, oblivious to the technology underpinning their new connection. This is a problem internet users are facing all over the country and it is being driven by the competitive tensions in the broadband market.

Broadband Market

Bypassing Chorus

Those of us who can access the UFB network should be doing so as it improves the economics of this critical piece of infrastructure that helped us get through Covid-19 as a nation of remote workers.

But broadband providers like Spark and Vodafone baulk at having to pay Chorus a wholesale fee to access the UFB network. They'd rather bypass that fee by delivering broadband and phone services over the mobile networks they own and control.

Both companies have been aggressively marketing wireless broadband and increasing or removing data caps to sweeten the deal. The pricing is competitive because the service is cheaper for them to provide it. But the Commerce Commission claims telecoms providers have been urging customers to accelerate their shift off the copper line network and are using some dodgy tactics in doing so.

"We have examples of people being told they need to move now because Chorus and Spark are in the process of withdrawing their copper or public switched telephone network (PSTN) service when withdrawal isn't even scheduled yet, and marketing materials are making claims about the performance of alternative technologies that don't reflect real-world performance," Telecommunications Commissioner Tristan Gilbertson said this week.

The Commission is so concerned about this that it has written to the telecoms players suggesting the industry signs onto marketing principles around alternative technologies to copper-based services as a matter of urgency.

"We want to work with the industry to develop meaningful marketing principles to ensure consumers receive the information they need about alternative technology options as they transition off these services, and to put all operators on a level playing field as they compete for customers," Gilbertson.

This needs to happen urgently because the retreat from copper is about to ramp up. Under the Copper Withdrawal Code, from September 1, Chorus is allowed to withdraw copper services in areas that have a fibre connection, requiring a shift to the new UFB network. Spark started withdrawing PSTN connections late last year.

Phone services can be easily replaced in the move to fibre or wireless broadband. But there is a marketing frenzy to try and capture customers as they move off copper. The marketing around the various technologies is confusing people. As the Commission points out, the technologies on offer are not created equal. Wireless broadband may be sufficient for my dad to stream his favourite radio station from County Clare in Ireland and hijack my Netflix account. 

But it is fundamentally different from UFB and can't match its performance. Some telco types argue that explaining the underlying technology doesn't matter if the service is fit for purpose - and saves people a few bucks. That doesn't cut it. Consumers have multiple broadband options now and they need to know what they are, the pros and cons, the timeframe they have to make a considered decision in.

It is a hassle to change broadband providers and often there are contract break fees involved. Kiwi broadband users deserve to know exactly what they are signing up for and what the full range of options available to them are.

Brislen to the rescue

Luckily we have outgoing Tech Blog editor Paul Brislen to sort the sorry mess out. As the new CEO of the Telecommunications Carriers Forum (TCF) which represents the major telecoms players, his first task will be wrangling his members to get them to agree to these common marketing principles the Commerce Commission is looking for.

We will follow Brisso's progress in getting this over the line. I've already given my father Paul's personal mobile number so he can talk him through his wireless broadband issues!

Finally, congratulations to Paul on his great new role, which is an important one given everything that is going on in the telco space at the moment. Paul filed his last of many columns for Tech Blog last week and I'm excited to take over the editor's chair with Griffin on Tech from today. 

I'm keen to hear your ideas for how we can make Tech Blog more engaging and relevant and we'd love to run your views on everything that's going on in IT as guest contributions. Get in touch if you have something to get off your chest at [email protected] 


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