ACCC should try explaining NBN speeds to grandma

Only a bureaucrat would think 'standard plus evening speed' is an informative label.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

Wherever the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) keeps its jar of stupid, it needs to lock it up better.

Clearly, the seal on the jar had been broken leading up to the announcement on Monday that the consumer regulator had decided to clarify the puzzling broadband labelling situation in Australia by adding yet another layer of confusing labelling.

The idea of informing broadband purchasers across Australia of an expected broadband speed during the high-contention period in the evening is sound, but the execution has been left wanting.

In the mind of the ACCC, there will now be four categories: Basic evening speed; standard evening speed; standard plus evening speed; and premium evening speed.

The latter three categories will correspond to minimum speeds of 15Mbps, 30Mbps, and 60Mbps during evenings, which in turn will have a minimum wholesale service of 25Mbps, 50Mbps, and 100Mbps, respectively.

So theoretically, it would be possible to have a 1Gbps fibre-to-the-home plan labelled as a "standard evening speed" service where the ISP had decided not to provision adequate bandwidth at a point of interconnect, and conversely have a properly provisioned 100Mbps fibre-to-the-node service labelled "premium evening speed".

While it is true that these labels are informative, they are really only going to help those who follow the telco and National Broadband Network (NBN) space closely. It's worth keeping in mind that the company responsible for rolling out the NBN across Australia believes over three quarters of Australians don't know their internet speed, and 35 percent are unaware they are able to choose a speed tier when connecting to the NBN.

Into this uninformed environment, it is puzzling that the ACCC believes it needs to add another piece of information that could run counter to the speed tier information consumers get.

For a regulator that has decided to stop telcos using adjectives such as "superfast", it is hard to see how its advice helps clarify the situation and doesn't further muddy the waters.

The core issue that the ACCC seems to want to tackle is ISPs not provisioning enough.

In its latest Wholesale Market Indicators Report, the ACCC revealed that for each user on the network, only 1.09Mbps has been purchased by ISPs per user.

At the time, the ACCC said it was looking into whether NBN needed to provide more information related to the amount of connectivity virtual circuit (CVC) capacity purchased by retailers, and the utilisation of the capacity purchased.

"The ACCC considers that further information in relation to CVC utilisation rates would assist the ACCC to monitor the development of competition over the NBN and enable it to perform its regulatory functions," ACCC chairman Rod Sims said earlier this month.

Compared to what it released this week -- where the ISPs will need to give a general estimate of how a plan is rated -- a score or rating based on actual data would be most welcome.

For instance, such a scheme could rate providers based on how much bandwidth they provision compared to what they sell. It could demarcate performance bands with colours, so customers need never worry about numbers.

It would be much easier, and more memorable, to speak of Telstra, Optus, TPG, and MyRepublic sitting in the yellow band, with a chance they could slip into the orange or red zone if they failed to lift their game.

As it currently stands, the discourse is set to revolve around concepts such as "standard evening speed" providers struggling to hit "standard plus evening speed" levels.

In a jargon-laden industry where most consumers would struggle with the concept of G.Fast or DOCSIS 3.1, the ACCC is simply making a bad environment even worse.

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