Broadband performance monitoring is good for Australia

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Rod Sims has called for broadband performance monitoring and in Business Spectator what this would mean for the telecommunications industry is discussed including how the Telco industry is likely to fight a misguided war to stop what could only help improve consumer relations.

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The Australian telecommunications industry’s stubborn resistance to a broadband monitoring regime highlights a distressing disconnect between it and those it serves. It has failed to grasp the fact that consumers are tired of the myriad excuses provided by the telcos for excessive congestion and poor broadband performance.

The argument against the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) proposal for a broadband performance monitoring and reporting program fails to acknowledge the extensive monitoring of every other form of utility carried out by the government. Telecommunications is an essential service yet one wonders why the industry would rather consumers be left in the dark about performance.

Speaking at the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) Annual Conference this month ACCC chairman Rod Sims said that “a broadband performance and monitoring program would promote competition and consumer outcomes by providing transparency over the quality of broadband services that are on offer to consumers.”

“Consumers need this information to help them select the most appropriate service for their needs and to confirm they are likely to be getting the service for which they are paying.”

Sims could have equally pointed out that service providers also need this information to ensure that customer connections to their systems meet performance requirements.

The Netflix ISP speed index has provided an indication of how important performance monitoring is to consumers and companies offering services over broadband. While Netflix offers an entertainment service that many would argue is not essential, it’s important to consider how knowledge of broadband performance might assist a provider of real-time broadband communication services for the disabled.

Sims highlighted this disparity when he said “Competition in the retail fixed broadband market in Australia is limited by an asymmetry of information between RSPs and consumers on service performance. This asymmetry of information also exists between RSPs, who may have information about the performance of their own networks, but not their competitors’ networks – which prevents them from effectively competing on service quality, not just price.”

A monitoring and reporting program would provide transparent information about broadband access networks that is fundamental to competition and improving the overall performance and quality of Australian networks.

However, with the government currently rolling out a second-rate National Broadband Network, made up of a hodgepodge of fixed access technologies, it’s unlikely that it will be in a rush to support the ACCC in its endeavour. A comprehensive broadband performance monitoring regime may not be in its interest given the poor performance large sections of the NBN is likely to experience.

Similarly poor experience with broadband delivery overseas has led to governments being forced to implement broadband monitoring programs to dampen voter anger and force incumbent telcos to pick up their game.

The ACCC boss has reinforced the need for a broadband performance monitoring program by highlighting the fact that “programs have been established in the United Kingdom (2008), United States of America (2010), New Zealand (2010) and Singapore (2011), with Canada poised to commence reporting on its program in 2016. While the particular models adopted by each country differ, they all share common aims of improving the transparency of information for consumers and encouraging performance-based competition for broadband services. This is an aim which the ACCC also supports.”

The evidence of the need for a broadband performance monitoring and reporting program is overwhelming yet the telecommunication industry peak body has maintained its opposition to the program. Speaking with itNews,  Communications Alliance CEO John Stanton provided a veritable smorgasbord of unsubstantiated reasons why telcos wanted the idea killed off.

Stanton stated that “in our view there has been no demonstration of market failure or identification of consumer detriment that needs to be addressed through the development of such a broadband monitoring program.”

Market failure and Australian telecommunications industry are synonymous so it’s unclear why Stanton has forgotten the reason why the government had to step in to create the NBN, why consumer outrage over rip-off international roaming charges and bill-shock caused by high excess data usage charges led to the new Telecommunications Consumer Protections (TCP) code. And let’s not forget the ongoing congestion and poor broadband performance experienced by consumers daily.

In an effort to throw a technical spanner into the works Stanton stated that “there were too many factors beyond broadband providers’ control to provide accurate performance measures, including the evolving nature of the NBN multi-mix technology” but the reality is there is no technical reason why a broadband performance monitoring program cannot be implemented immediately.

The government has implemented broadband performance monitoring programs before in response to consumer complaints. The Department of Communications outsourced performance monitoring and reporting for the Australian Broadband Guarantee (ABG) program to Enex Testlab during the latter years of the ABG program. RMIT University provided Enex Testlab with technical assistance and result verification.

The ABG was an Australian Government initiative from 2007 to 2011 designed to help residential and small business premises access high-quality broadband services regardless of where they were located. The program targeted premises unable to access commercial metro-comparable services, particularly those living in remote parts of Australia.

Sims finished his ACCAN speech with a warning that “it’s something that’s happening overseas and it’s going to need broad support if it’s going to get up here. And I’d really urge you to get behind that because it’s going to need a bit of popular support, because there’ll be a range of people who won’t want to see it happening.”

The government should not wait for further consumer outrage to erupt before it supports the broadband performance monitoring and reporting program. A proactive approach will give the industry time to adapt to greater transparency before the NBN rollout is completed.

Mark Gregory is a senior lecturer in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University.