ACCC needs AU$6m more to monitor NBN fixed-wireless speeds

Another AU$6 million in government funding is needed to extend the ACCC's speed-monitoring reports to fixed-wireless services in order to cover the cost of obtaining 4,000 more devices and the managed services involved.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has told the Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network (NBN) that it would need an additional AU$6 million in funding to extend its speed-monitoring program to fixed-wireless services.

According to the ACCC's Sean Riordan, there have been calls to examine and report on fixed-wireless NBN speeds as well as fixed line, but the scope of the program would need to be expanded with financial support from the government to get more measuring boxes.

"It's the same type of measuring device, but you'd need quite a few of them, because the fixed-wireless service is relatively variable; in some localities it works quite well, in some instances it works quite poorly just on a sporadic basis with weather conditions, and it's just a far more variable service," he told the committee during a hearing on its NBN business case inquiry.

"And so before you can have confidence at a statistical level that what you're measuring is representative of the services generally, and the performance of retailers generally over that technology, there's a good argument that you'd just need more devices.

"Just in very rough numbers, around another AU$6 million would be required to do the measurements over the four years. It's possibly not a lot of money, but there is a need for more funding."

The ACCC's speed-monitoring program makes use of at least 50 devices per RSP per service in order to obtain statistically valid results, he told the committee on Tuesday. The devices cost between AU$100 and AU$150 each, with around 4,000 being required to test fixed-wireless speeds, he said.

"It would be a multiple of 50 [devices] for each individual class that you want to measure over the fixed-wireless network," Riordan said.

The AU$6 million would also go towards the managed services, which he said includes "help desks, data validation, maintaining the test server equipment, and just support for us in preparing reports for the public".

Riordan added that the decision to exclude fixed-wireless from the speed-monitoring reports had been made by the ACCC.

"It was done on the basis that we felt there was a need to act quickly in the fixed-line footprint where most of the services were an issue; there was certainly more acceptance by RSPs of testing of the fixed-line footprint," he explained to the joint standing committee.

"There is a lot of nervousness from the retailers about the fixed-wireless services coming into the scope of the program."

As there is a "relatively small cohort" of fixed-wireless users, it would require "more active" recruitment by the ACCC for speed test volunteers, Riordan said, which would also require them to give up part of their quota for the tests.

"We have had a few exploratory talks just with government to see whether there is any interest in us doing this. To date, I haven't been asked to go back to market and get a firm quote as to what it would cost," he noted.

"Within the scope of the funding that we have, we could be able to do some very high-level monitoring and reporting ... at the present time, that's possibly not the right sort of approach to go into how the retailers themselves are doing over the networks, because it does seem to be a network capacity issue in that all of the retailers will possibly come back to being broadly similar in all of these congested areas because they can't really differentiate their product on CVC, which was the factor that originally inspired us to start this testing at the retail level -- it was to draw out the operational and financial decisions that the RSPs themselves were making, and how that was translating into consumer experience.

"In a congested world, that logic doesn't really hold."

The ACCC's first fixed-line broadband speed monitoring report published in March had found that NBN retailers are actually delivering up to 90 percent of their speed tier promises during peak hours.

The first Measuring Broadband Australia report [PDF] showed Telstra, Optus, TPG, and iiNet delivering between 80 and 90 percent of their speeds at all times, including the busy hours of between 7pm and 11pm.

The report followed the consumer watchdog forcing Telstra, Optus, TPG, iiNet, Internode, Dodo, iPrimus, and Commander to compensate tens of thousands of customers for not providing them with the NBN speeds they were paying for.

The ACCC is still seeking volunteers for the broadband speed monitoring program in order to increase the pool of data, and will be providing its next report in the second half of this year.

The AU$6.5 million speed-monitoring program will take place over the next four years, with SamKnows appointed in December to monitor speeds. The government is providing funding over four years from July 1, 2017.

Riordan also described two ways in which NBN could improve visibility over how it is tracking and addressing its fixed-wireless network, including publishing which cells are congested to the point of being below 6Mbps in peak times.

"Commence in their dashboard reporting or similar how they're tracking in addressing the cells which don't currently qualify or meet their own design standard for the 6 megabit per second per end user in the busy hour -- that would be one simple step which they could take, and that would at least give people an informed information base to make some policy and other decisions," he suggested.

"The other work that we would like to do is to look to see what consumers are being advised at the time they're making their purchase decisions, whether they're being advised that the service that they're looking to acquire is actually in a cell which is congested."

NBN CEO Bill Morrow on Monday told the same joint standing committee that the company is also considering implementing a Fair Use policy capping download allowances for "extreme" or "super" users in order to combat fixed-wireless congestion.

"Our average consumption across the NBN network is just under 200 gigabytes per month, and when you look at the fixed-wireless network it's substantially less than that, so these aren't as heavy of users; however, in the fixed-wireless there's a large portion that are using terabytes of data," the outgoing CEO explained.

"One of the things that we're evaluating ... [is] a form of Fair Use policy to say we would groom these extreme users ... the grooming could be that during the busy period of the day, when these heavy users are impacting the majority, that they actually get throttled back to where they are taking down whatever everybody else is taking down, and during the non-congested or busy periods, they're free to go for as much data as they want to pull down."

According to Morrow, there's enough extreme usage happening that there would be a "substantial lift" in peak speeds for other fixed-wireless users if NBN did groom the super users, which he described as being "gamers predominantly".

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