It is unfortunate for consumers and businesses that Telstra’s potential $3 billion-plus investment in a large-scale fibre-optic network and the coming T3 sale have coincided.
The debate over the two have rarely been separated, but at stake are two very separate issues, with very separate stakeholders. Treasury officials are concerned with maximising the price of Telstra’s sale, but consumers and businesses should be concerned about the circumstances in which we allow infrastructure investment in this country.
As Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Graeme Samuel has correctly noted, Telstra’s fibre-optic plan is “not the only game in town”. A consortium of Telstra’s competitors, including Optus, Macquarie Telecom, Primus and Internode, have proposed an open-access network. Tellingly, all their proposals would require heavy investment from Telstra.
Telstra’s competitors are merely following Telstra chief executive Sol Trujillo’s lead and conducting regulatory negotiations through press statements.
Unfortunately for the regulator, the obstinate Telstra refuses to sign up to its competitors’ plans. Telstra has the money to do so, but, under the current regulatory framework, no desire. And why should it? The ACCC has argued that any investment by the carrier would be subject to a “fair” return. But it is not the ACCC embarking on this risky business venture – Telstra is a company that at least in theory should be aiming to maximise its financial returns. If a company, or individual for that matter, makes an investment in the market, they should be subject to their own judgement of what constitutes a fair return, not what a national regulator considers one to be.
But such thinking is largely alien to the ACCC, which has long believed itself to be the patriarch of large infrastructure investment in Australia.
The classic justification for the imposition by a regulator of shared access does not apply to Telstra’s fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) proposal.
The carrier built its copper-wire network under a government-imposed monopoly. It used taxpayers’ funds to do so. Under these circumstances, it was perhaps reasonable to have a regulator open the network up to ensure at least the vestiges of competition. But there are very real problems with such a regulatory regime.
Access-based competition encourages service providers, initially leeching off the monopoly provider’s network, to step up the “ladder of investment” – slowly investing more and more in the existing infrastructure. This has its advantages in a marketplace with little innovation.
But having now invested a great deal in the existing network, these carriers are faced with the prospect of being abandoned by Telstra as it jumps into a largely separate new network.
The ACCC’s framework has encouraged the growth of small, fly-by-night internet service providers, whose business model is nothing more than a reliance on the ACCC-determined access prices. Country-wide, there are more than 250 of these ISPs, encouraged not by the whim of the free market, but by the decrees of the regulator. Given their perilous profitability, they are ill-equipped to withstand the rapid technological change of the sector.
Access sharing does nothing to encourage true, facilities-based competition. And there are few other industries where facilities-based competition, and the innovation which propels it, are of such paramount importance. Given the ever-increasing range of technology by which high-speed broadband can be delivered to the home – and to the mobile phone – we cannot afford to discourage entrepreneurs from experimenting with new business models and products.
And, not least, access sharing constitutes a massive taking of property rights. This may not have been of much concern to regulators a decade ago, when they were faced with the taxpayer-supported Telecom, but with a nominally private company whose investments are subject to free will, this should be of great concern.
The communications market has been liberalised for the past decade and subject to a radical shift in emphasis. It is important to remember that consumer demand has moved from the basic telephone service to mobile telephones, to video-playing iPods. There are now large numbers of telecommunications providers, many of which are justly proud of their investments in infrastructure across the country.
But Telstra’s competitors and the ACCC want to migrate the access-sharing framework, developed a decade ago for a monopoly network provider, onto a fibre-optic network developed by an entrepreneurial company with private capital. The FTTN network is highly speculative. Given the current state of technological innovation, it is a risky investment. Telstra must bear this risk alone.
The FTTN network will not be the last investment Australian firms make in telecommunications infrastructure. Rapid technological change makes it a certainty that every few years significant upgrades will be made to our national communications networks. But if regulators are given a right of reply to every investment and pricing adjustment, Australian broadband will lag well behind what a wealthy, prosperous nation should have.