NBN needs to encourage good RSP behaviour

Any parent, pet owner or manager will know that the basic tenet of managing anything is that you do your best to encourage good behaviour and discourage bad behaviour. This is the origin of the old “carrot & stick” saying.

Each of us have our own motivations and what we try to do is find ways to encourage behaviour in the people we work with that lines up with our motivations.

NBN’s Goals

So what are NBN’s motivations? There are three main goals set partly by the Government and partly by NBN themselves;

  1. Roll out the network as fast as possible while keeping capital expenditure within budget.
  2. Ensure the end customers have a good experience (“CX” in NBN parlance), both connecting to and using the network.
  3. Raise the average revenue they get from each connection (via their customers, the RSPs) to at least $51 per connection per month (known in the industry as ARPU – Average Revenue Per User). This is to ensure the long term financial viability of the project. 

I’m not going to comment on the first goal, because this has been written about extensively elsewhere, it’s also not something that we as an RSP (Retail Service Provider), have much influence on.

The other two goals are heavily influenced by NBN’s customers, the RSPs. So coming back to my opening statement… wouldn’t you expect that NBN would support and encourage those RSPs that are helping them meet their goals? Unfortunately their actions to date haven’t demonstrated this, indeed they appear to be either doing the opposite or at best, ignoring the behaviour of those RSPs that seem to be aligning with their goals. They are behaving like the teacher who’s time is taken up attempting to deal with a few noisy, recalcitrant pupils who don’t want to be there, rather than helping those pupils that are interested in actually learning something.

The Bundles

The most obvious example is the bundles. In 2017 NBN had a big problem with two of the goals (CX and Revenue). RSPs were allowing their networks to become congested by not buying enough CVC – the capacity that NBN charges RSPs to deliver data to the RSP’s customers. This meant that end customers were complaining about poor performance (“bad CX”), which big RSPs where able to blame-shift across to NBN’s choice of technology. It was also impacting NBN’s overall revenue due to delayed take-up of services and people not interested in buying higher speeds.

So instead of asking “OK which RSPs are providing better CX and more revenue for us (i.e. align with our goals), what are they doing and how can we encourage more of it?” They instead went straight to “How can we force the big RSPs to improve the CX by providing more CVC to their customers?”

NBN released Focus on 50 and then the bundles, which essentially gives everyone a pre-determined amount of CVC bandwidth with each connection. Phil Britt, CEO of Aussie Broadband, was quoted in a presentation he gave to AusNOG: “In November 2017 nbn rewarded the big boys for behaving badly and the landscape changed again.”

The bundles were a short term fix, but they’ve created a bigger problem. While there’s no question it did almost instantly improve CX by removing congestion, the change was only temporary as our bandwidth usage has grown and we’re again seeing congestion return to some carrier’s networks. However, the second problem is that this has made it even harder for NBN to reach its $51 ARPU goal. The reason is that the bundles have homogenised the product offerings of RSPs. NBN have essentially told the RSPs how they should run their networks (how much CVC they should buy) by making it much more expensive to operate outside the expected amount. NBN took away one of the key unique selling points of those RSPs already doing the right thing: they damaged the business models of those RSPs that were generating NBN the most revenue per user.

Why is this a problem? In any market you need to have a range of products catering to different needs around price versus quality/performance. I drive a cheap Hyundai Getz because I am not interested in cars, yet some people will pay 5 times what I paid for my Getz to get a vehicle they enjoy driving or does more than going from A to B. That doesn’t make the Getz a bad car, it is just targeted at a particular market that happens to include me.

Commoditised Market

If a market is homogenised, i.e. all products are much the same, then the only thing to discuss is the price. We call this a commoditised market. This is very prone to happening anyway in the telco market where product differences are at best technical and hard to explain. This has not only lead to a fall in revenue for everyone involved, but has also lead to some atrocious behaviour with some telcos using sales tricks or even downright deception to get or keep customers, rather than product differentiation. The commoditisation makes it very hard for anyone (NBN or RSPs) to raise extra revenue by providing higher performance services, that at least some people will buy. Without the higher paying customers, NBN and the RSPs cannot afford to provide services to their lower paying customers.

Meeting NBNs Goals

For the record, at Launtel we aim to provide a very high level of network performance and customer experience. We do this by simply buying more CVC (“overage”) than most other providers along with an attention to detail and care around the support we provide our customers. We also charge more than most RSPs for an internet service. Thus we don’t cater well for those who are happy to accept a lower performance and want to pay less – we turn away people that want to buy a Getz because we are selling Mercedes. We don’t use tricks to get sales, we just let people try the product and see if it is for them – see if it is worth paying the extra money.

It should come as no surprise that we also provide more revenue to NBN per connection. As of today we pay NBN an ARPU of $55.24. In other words we are among the RSPs who are bringing their revenue average up, helping NBN meet their goals, both in terms of revenue and customer experience. You would expect them to be interested in what we have done, however to date they seem to be more interested in how to stop the big players from holding their customers to ransom by providing poor CX. 

Pricing Review

To be fair, NBN have launched a pricing review, which we have contributed to. Our submission includes a very detailed suggestion on how the CVC pricing could be restructured to encourage the RSPs looking to sell high quality/high performance/high speed/high priced services to sell more of those services. Many commentators would like to see the CVC charge gone, or have argued for the bundles to include more CVC, I don’t believe this is a good approach. It would just further commoditise the market. It would hurt NBN’s goal of raising the revenue it needs to further upgrade the network (e.g. towards the FTTP we know Australia will absolutely need within 20 years) and more to the point, make it harder for NBN to cross-subsidise the services for those who can only afford to pay less.

Don’t get me wrong I’m not looking for special treatment here, I’m just asking NBN to stop closing off a market (the high performance one) that would align very well with two of their important goals.

Damian Ivereigh
Launtel