ACMA goes to tender to test NBN modems

As part of its ongoing investigation into NBN customer experience issues, the ACMA will provide AU$300,000 to the successful tenderer to look into whether modems are contributing to underperformance.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is seeking a supplier to performance test modems being used across National Broadband Network (NBN) services as part of its investigation into widespread customer experience issues.

The tests, to take place between October 8, 2018, and January 25, 2019, will take place across customers' VDSL2 modems and modem/routers on the fibre-to-the-node (FttN) and fibre-to-the-building (FttB) networks.

This should include the modems being supplied by retail service providers as well as those being purchased by consumers at electronics retailers, the ACMA said, with at least two of each type of router to be tested.

"The performance of different modems and modem/routers can affect the overall consumer experience when connecting to the NBN, potentially leading to lower broadband speeds," the ACMA said in its tender documents.

"This performance testing program aims to quantify the variability in performance of VDSL2 modems and modem/routers (where those devices incorporate Wi-Fi functionality) and identify potential causes of underperformance."

The tender is worth AU$300,000, and will see the provider testing DSL and Wi-Fi performance across attainable sync rate; attenuation (dB); signal-to-noise ratio (dB); stability; drop-out rate; and time to re-sync.

The tests should also take into account the impact of NBN speed tiers on the performance of modems; cable lengths to premises from FttN/B DSLAM nodes; distance from the router; traffic on the Wi-Fi network; the number of devices connected simultaneously to the router using Wi-Fi; the presence of wall and floor obstructions between the router and end-user devices; crosstalk; injected noise to simulate cable impairments; and interference on the 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz bands.

The ACMA had in April flagged that it would be continuing its examination into the impact modems can have on NBN service quality.

"The ACMA is aware that the performance of some modems may mean consumers cannot access optimal speeds on the new network," it said at the time.

"We will undertake a study to identify the modems currently being supplied in the market and test their capabilities. The evidence gathered and any issues identified will inform our response to this matter, including whether there is a need for further regulatory or non-regulatory intervention."

This followed the ACMA being ordered by the federal government to research NBN migration issues in August last year; in December, it then published the new consumer protections to be implemented during the migration to NBN services, after finding that connection issues may not be resolved for over 100 days on some technologies.

As a result of its investigation, the federal government agency last month introduced its final rules for the transition of consumers onto the NBN, including the requirements for line tests and copper speed tests.

Retailers are now also be required to provide interim services if a customer has no access to an NBN service within three days.

"These new rules will give consumers greater confidence that their telco will make sure their new NBN service will work as expected and provide options if their connection doesn't work," ACMA Chair Nerida O'Loughlin said in July.

"For some consumers, an acceptable arrangement might be an uplift in their mobile data allowance; for others, it might be a billing rebate or payment to help cover the data charges."

O'Loughlin added that the ACMA will report regularly on industry compliance, customer experience, and enforcement activities, which could include civil penalties of up to AU$10 million on top of injunctions.

The ACMA had in June unveiled its Consumer Information Standard and Service Continuity Standard, which will both commence on September 21. The former requires retail service providers (RSPs) to provide a key facts sheet to all NBN customers, while the latter ensures consumers have access to a broadband service at all times.

"Together, these rules will require telcos to specify the minimum information that telcos must provide to consumers; 'line test' new services to ensure that lines are working and that faults are identified early; reconnect consumers to legacy network services where readily feasible if a consumer is unable to get a working service over the NBN network; comply with minimum standards for handling of consumer complaints; and report data about the complaints they receive to the ACMA so these can be monitored," O'Loughlin said back in April.

ACMA produces tender on spectrum refarming process

The ACMA has additionally gone to tender for a spectrum band review worth AU$50,000, to be undertaken between September 14 and December 21, 2018, in order to "identify better practice in relation to decisions by spectrum regulators to undertake regulator-initiated spectrum refarming".

The tender documents note that the ACMA's current framework does not take into consideration quantification of the impacts on downstream consumers of displaced incumbents; the length of time that incumbents should be allowed to continue operating prior to the new use having unfettered access to the band; multiple, cumulative, or substitutable bands; balancing other government policy objectives; and when the cost-benefit analysis should be applied.

The ACMA also pointed to a review of the "application of the highest value use methodology in the 3.6GHz band, and identification of any opportunities for improvement, particularly in relation to quantifying costs and benefits that are only qualitatively discussed".

The 3.6GHz band, to be used by carriers for 5G services, will go to auction in late November.

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