Union riled as Chorus cuts copper network maintenance

Up to 145 jobs are at risk as network operator Chorus focuses on what the engineers union calls 'reactive maintenance' of the copper network.

A New Zealand union is warning of huge job losses at engineering firm Transfield Services as network operator Chorus cuts back on maintenance of its legacy copper network.

The Engineering, Printing, and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) said Chorus is reducing spending on the network and only committing to basic maintenance amounts, and that amounts to mismanagement.

The cutbacks have come after competition regulator the Commerce Commission slashed the amount Chorus could charge retail internet service providers (ISPs) for access to the network.

Copper still provides the bulk of Chorus' revenue while the government-backed Ultra-Fast Broadband (UFB) rollout is in progress.

"Because Chorus has been unsuccessful in getting the copper price raised, they're doing as little as possible to keep the network up and running," said EPMU organiser Joe Gallagher.

"This means less work for their contractors, and in turn fewer jobs for their workers."

Opposition broadcasting spokeswoman Clare Curran said 145 jobs are at risk, and the copper network is being neglected.

"The copper network is the backbone of regional internet connections," she said. "Families and businesses need it to be kept up to speed. It's the obligation of Chorus and [IT Minister] Amy Adams to make that happen."

Chorus spokesman Nathan Beaumont said as more and more people transition from copper to fibre, Transfield has advised that it needs to restructure its business to meet this changing demand.

"It is entirely up to Transfield how it resources and delivers on its contract with Chorus," Beaumont said

The scope of the work it does for Chorus has not changed in the past six years, he said, and the union has known since 2008 that the change in emphasis was a natural consequence of the Ultra-Fast Broadband program.

"There has been a natural decline in expenditure on the copper network over the past four years as UFB deployment continues, and this decline is expected to continue in the coming years."

More work is happening on the fibre network because the copper network is being overbuilt with fibre in 75 percent of New Zealand, he said.

"That's why Chorus isn't spending as much on copper. It's also a consequence of life-cycle management; mismanagement would be continuing to spend money on something which is being replaced."

The union said skilled workers are being forced to look overseas for jobs as Chorus focuses more on "reactive maintenance", and that is putting infrastructure at risk.

"We will be meeting with Transfield to discuss how we can save as many jobs as we can and ensure workers are able to transfer to other parts of the business wherever possible," Gallagher said.