Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The state of telco play, 2016

The Commerce Commission's latest annual report on the state of our telco markets came out last week. At the time I was too busy on other things to give it a good read - and if you're also up to your eyes, then there's a media release and a cheat sheet infographic to give you the gist - but I've now got round to it and, like the previous ones, it's well worth a look (my comments on earlier ones are here and here).

Before getting into some of the details, I'll just say - again - that we have a daft system for regulatory review of what's happening in our markets. The Telecommunications Commissioner, who is part of the Commerce Commission, is required to conduct and publish reports on what's going on in telco markets (under s9A of the Telecommunications Act 2010), but the Commerce Commission itself is forbidden to do it in any other markets (under the courts' reading of the Commerce Act). There are people in the bowels of MBIE looking at the discrepancy at the moment: let's hope they come down on the sensible side of the fence.

And there's a good example in this latest report on how proactive enquiries into the state of competition might work. The report was looking at market shares in the mobile market (p36):
We have noted 2degrees’ very small share of business market revenues in prior reports. We commissioned UMR to undertake a survey of the business mobile market in the latter half of 2015 to gain a better understanding of the market and check if there were any barriers to expansion. Overall, the survey revealed no evidence of anti‑competitive behaviour.
Excellent - the Telecommunications team found something odd that might have been an issue with competition, investigated it, and was able to blow the All Clear. Exactly what should be happening in every other sector of the economy.

This year's report is mostly a record of solid, ongoing progress in the sector, with greater uptake, faster speeds, decent levels of consumer choice, and somewhat lower prices (more obviously lower when quality-adjusted). Your interests may be different, but here are a few thoughts that occurred to me.

This is the graph showing how broadband download speeds have been improving.


All well and good, but the set of comparators looked a bit idiosyncratic. Where are the smaller OECD economies like Denmark or Ireland or Switzerland that we might normally want to match ourselves against? And why Malaysia, of all places? So I went to the original Akamai report these numbers came from, and I was able to find a table of download speeds for a wide range of Asia-Pacific countries (including us), and also a table of European speeds.


By Asian standards, we're doing pretty well, especially when you consider that some of the very densely urbanised countries like Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore must be a good deal easier to serve, compared to us having to trench our way up the Cobb Valley. But by European standards, we're not such hot stuff, even when compared with long, skinny, thinly populated places like Norway and Sweden which must have similarly challenging geographies.


If we were a European country, we'd rank only 21st on that table (behind Poland, ahead of France). And globally we rank 41st in the Akamai universe - not so flash. We'd expect to be somewhere in the top 20 on most other economic measures (the other day we came 16th in the latest World Competitiveness Rankings, for example). So by all means let's be happy that speeds have improved, but also let's be aware that we are (for whatever reason) still well behind the sorts of speeds our kids on OE can get (unless they're in Australia).

There was also a fascinating chart showing the extent of pent-up demand in New Zealand for decent online content, after years of limited choice, long delays, and high prices. The little arrow on the chart shows the immediate and ongoing surge in data consumption when Netflix arrived. I can only begin to imagine the existential angst in the strategic planning units of our telco and media companies: some current business models can't hold.


Finally, on the regulatory front, the report noted (p30) that
The wholesale cost of terminating a phone call on a mobile network is called the mobile termination rate and is regulated in nearly all countries. We last reviewed the mobile termination rate on 5 May 2011, and the last regulated reduction prescribed in that determination was to 3.56cpm (excluding GST) on 1 April 2014. The ACCC last year set the mobile termination rate for Australia at A1.7cpm, and as at July 2015 the weighted average for Europe was 1.22 eurocents per minute.
There is no obvious reason why our mobile termination rates should be well in excess of those overseas - at current exchange rates, roughly twice Australia's, and roughly 75% higher than Europe's. The technologies are the same, and on some opex costs we should be cheaper (our wage bills are lower, for example). I'm no great fan of extra regulation, and still less of extra price control regulation, but if the subtext of "We last reviewed the mobile termination rate five years ago" is "And, you know, it's about time we had another look", I reckon the Telecommunications Commissioner is on the right track.

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