Regulation

Billshock!

Bill shock - the shock of receiving a massive and unexpected bill - is becoming increasingly common with mobiles phones, leading in many cases to severe financial hardship and even bankruptcy.

Here we look at some ways you can avoid big blowouts. Various financial counselling services have reported that mobile phone bills are the number one cause of people - especially young people - seeking bankruptcy guidance.

It seems that many people simply don’t understand how their mobile plans work, what their phones can do, and how much certain services cost. Ignorance is no longer bliss, if indeed it ever was. It’s also no excuse for phone companies, who expect to be paid no matter how bewildered you might feel.

So how can bill-shock be avoided? The two most vital things you can do are to know the products, and to be honest with yourself. Here are some general tips:

PREPAID IS ALWAYS THE SAFEST
With pre-pay, what you pay for is what you get, making it very easy to control your expenditure each month. This is an excellent option for people who aren’t sure where they’ll be in the future, and those with a bad credit rating. Even if your prepay credit is used up, you can still call emergency numbers.

CHOOSE YOUR CAP CAREFULLY
If you’re on a Cap plan, make sure it is big enough, and be careful not to exceed your limit. Cap plans are great value so long as you stay within your cap. However, call rates on Cap plans are truly terrible, and costs can really add up if you use up your available credit.

BE CAREFUL WITH SMS
SMS may seem cheap - only 20- 25c per text - but they can really add up. Many young people send hundreds of SMS per month, significantly adding to monthly costs. Premium SMS services - including reality show voting - generally cost at least twice the normal SMS rate, and usually aren’t included under cap limits.

UNDERSTAND YOUR PLAN
Different carriers calculate things in different ways, and are not above deliberately confusing customers with complicated terminology and details, as various cases before the ACCC attest. For a fun exercise, try a direct comparison between an Optus and a 3 Mobile bill. There is a huge proliferation of choice in the mobile phone market, but choice is only a good thing when you understand all the options. Otherwise, it becomes disempowering, leading to confusion, frustration and potential hardship.

OWN YOUR PHONE OUTRIGHT
You can buy a functional handset for under $60. Owning a mobile outright is always safer than paying one off on a 24-month contract. Depending on the carrier, the cost of paying out the handset if you break your contract might be bigger than you realise.

BE CAREFUL WITH YOUR HANDSET FEATURES
Phone companies aim to make spending money effortless. They provide handsets that can access expensive premium features very easily, sometimes by accident. These costs add up very quickly.

TAKE CARE WITH MOBILE DATA
Browsing the internet costs a lot more than making phone calls. Most Australian mobile data plans are smaller than you might realise, and it is very easy to exceed them, leading to very large bills. Additionally, if you have a smartphone, make sure you keep track of what your handset is doing in the background. Various data options are often defaulted to ‘on’.

BE VERY REALISTIC ABOUT YOUR NEEDS
Be honest about why you actually need a mobile. Basic calling functionality is generally the most anyone would ever truly need a phone for. Anything beyond that is a luxury, and luxuries are rarely free.

Our advice? If in any doubt, buy a handset outright, and go prepaid. You can always go on a plan later, once you better understand your needs usages patterns and choices.

The Week: Government Business

Story of the week is the Federal Government’s new mandatory data retention legislation, which stipulates that the communications metadata of all Australian citizens must be retained for no less than two years, and will be accessible by government agencies without a warrant. 

Even as I write the legislation is continuing its inexorable journey through the upper and lower houses of the Australian parliament, much as food makes its way through the upper and lower intestines of a large mammal. As with digestion, nothing has been particularly improved by the passage of this legislation. The federal opposition insist they conducted a robust party room debate on the subject, whereby standing members were encouraged to voice their concerns and air their reservations about the new laws.

What emerged however were a series of all but pointless amendments precisely calibrated to give the impression that Labor wasn’t merely rubber-stamping another government policy, without actually addressing any of the fundamental issues.

The government took one look at the proposed amendments, shrugged, and waved them through. The more strenuous amendments proposed by independent MPs and senators, as well as the Greens, were voted down

There's nothing to worry about though: it's just metadata. It's not like they're reading your emails or listening to your phone calls. What can you tell from metadata? Well, lots, actually.

The fun doesn't stop here, though. Next week will see the introduction of new site-blocking legislation, which is primarily designed to crack down on internet piracy. 

Given that Labor itself pursued even more sweeping and arbitrary laws when it was in office - Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull is adamant that this new regime is not an internet filter - you can expect that this legislation will also enjoy similarly spirited 'opposition'.

It is either revealing or coincidental that this legislation is being introduced now, just as Netflix launches in Australia. Along with other new Video-On-Demand (VOD) services such as Stan and Presto, it is anticipated that Netflix may lead to a dramatic long-term drop in piracy rates. 

Emergency Spectrum

Anyway, while our politicians spend time, resources and energy passing laws that are of debatable use, yet provide easy political capital, there are other important measures that are at risk of falling by the wayside. The federal government has finally released the terms of reference (TOR) for the cost-benefit analysis (CBA) for the creation of a national emergency services mobile network. Sounds complicated. Maybe that's why it has taken so long.

The need for a national emergency mobile network has existed for years. When completed, it will provide reserved mobile spectrum for Australian emergency services. Last March the Communications department announced that the CBA was imminent. November 2014 saw the announcement that Productivity Commission would look at the costs (and benefits!) of allocating spectrum to this service. 

Of course, the issue predates those time-frames, and even the current government. The Police Federation of Australia in fact made a submission to the previous government, requesting 20MHz in the 700MHz spectrum. This request was rejected, since that spectrum was being auctioned off, and just giving it away for public safety was a waste of money.

Anyway, today the terms of reference were finally released.  The final report is due in nine months.

Do Not Call

Some good news from parliament! As reported on ACCAN's website, inclusion on the National Do Not Call Register is now indefinite.

Whereas previous registration only lasted eight years, now the registration is permanent. We encourage anyone interested in not being pestered by telemarketers to register immediately. Bear in mind, however, that you can still be contacted by charities, political parties (sadly) and research companies (seriously?). 

Registration is free, and can be done here.

The Week: The End of Mobile Security

Story of the week has undoubtedly been the revelation – again courtesy of Edward Snowden – that the United States' National Security Agency (NSA) and the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in 2010 stole a very large number of mobile SIM encryption keys.

They did this by hacking into the IT systems of Gemalto, the world’s largest manufacturer of SIM cards, and monitoring and intercepting the communications of its employees. Gemalto produces about two billion SIM cards annually, supplying over 450 of the world’s top telcos, including US giants AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon. Closer to home, Gemalto customers include Telstra, Optus and Vodafone, which means that pretty much every Australian mobile user could be affected.

Obtaining these keys enables the NSA and GCHQ to monitor large portions of the world’s mobile communications, including both voice and data. They can also access any personal data stored on the SIM. Furthermore, having these keys obviates the needs for complicated interception techniques, and removes the inherent limitations of wire-tapping.

SIM encryption is fairly simple, involving a basic key exchange. The key is kept on the SIM itself, and by your telco. These are checked against each other whenever the SIM is used for transmission. It is a system that remains secure only so long as the secret keys aren’t obtained by a third party, which of course they have been. 

It has of course been done without any form of warrant: since the keys were stolen in the first place, it’s not as though the agencies involved were particularly bothered with legality. Nor were they likely to be caught, since interception via these methods leaves little trace on the actual network.

In the event that a telco did detect traces of snooping, the leaked documents also revealed that GCHQ has the capacity to alter billing data to remove evidence of spying.

It is unclear whether all compromised SIMs will need to be recalled. Telstra and Optus have both said they are awaiting further advice from Gemalto. If the SIMs do need to be recalled, it will entail an enormous – if not unprecedented – disruption to national telecommunications. I will update this post as more news comes to hand.

[UPDATE] Vodafone Australia has issued a statement, saying that they "have no evidence that any Vodafone Australia customers’ SIMs have been compromised."

Gemalto meanwhile insists that its systems are secure. (Then again, it also said that it didn’t expect there to be any financial downturn following these revelations. Its share value plummeted to the tune of a half billion dollars following the revelation, and has not recovered.)

The full story first appeared on The Intercept, a website mainly devoted to properly publishing the documents leaked by Edward Snowden. We encourage you to read the full story. As it makes clear: “Gaining access to a database of keys is pretty much game over for cellular encryption.”

[UPDATE] Gemalto's investigation has concluded that while their systems were compromised in 2010, the size of the theft has been "greatly exaggerated." Meanwhile The Intercept has responded, quoting one expert that "This is an investigation that seems mainly designed to produce positive statements. It is not an investigation at all."

Staying with Snowden for the moment, he yesterday appeared in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit, alongside journalist Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, director of the Oscar winningCitizenfour. All three were articulate and forthcoming, and it really is a must read. So read it here.

The Week: Metadata

There was enormous interest in the Prime Minister’s address to the National Press Club on Monday, but mostly for reasons that are of little direct concern here. Something about the leadership of the country?

Lost amidst the politicking and veiled threats to his own backbenchers were some details that were directly relevant, namely Abbott’s reinforced commitment to getting the new, expanded data retention legislation through parliament. The government argues that these laws would give ASIO augmented powers to identify potential terrorist threats. Others argue that even if these new powers would be effective, they come as the cost of further erosion of fundamental freedoms, and that by default they turn citizens into suspects.

The laws would require telecommunications providers to retain the metadata of customers for a period of no less than two years. Metadata is the data about communications, rather than the contents of the communication itself.

For example, metadata of a phone call would include the time when the call was made, its duration, who made the call, where it was made, the device it was made on, who was called and several other details. The federal government argues that this would not equate to snooping on people’s phone calls, and that the information you can glean from metadata is limited.

The truth is that the information you can obtain from metadata is less limited than you might think, and certainly less limited than the government is disingenuously letting on. Here, for example, is an excellent Ted Talk by Malte Spitz, in which he ‘maps’ 6 months of his own life based on the metadata he obtained from his telco.

Opponents of the legislation argue that there are insufficient safeguards against misuse by security agencies, inadequate provisions against ‘scope creep’, no clear definition of metadata, and no real breakdown of the cost of this expanded surveillance regime, either to tax payers or to telco providers who would pass this cost on to customers).

There is also the issue of who precisely can have access. Can Australian telco customers get access to their own data? Fairfax journalist Ben Grubb mounted an extended campaign to get access to his own metadata from Telstra, with frustrating results. Would thing improve under new expanded laws?

In any case, the Prime Minister believes that passage of this legislation has gained special urgency in light of the recent hostage incident at the Lindt café in Sydney – which the police have not classified as a terrorist attack – and the mass murders at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. The implication, presumably, is that these attacks could have been prevented by legislation such as this. Is this true, or are these tragedies simply being repurposed for political ends, as David Marr warned they might be. In fact, France already data retention laws not dissimilar to the ones being introduced here.

The Prime Minister is in no doubt: “From the siege to Charlie Hebdo, there are a whole range of people in our country who want to do us harm, and it’s absolutely vital that we maintain the capacity to trace, detect and protect the Australian public against all kinds of crime. This government will not rest until our community is safe as it can be, and part of that is getting data retention through the Parliament.”

He also revealed this morning that he has written to the Opposition Leader not to block the legislation, which he hopes will make it through both houses by the middle of next month.

Money Well Spent

The federal government this week formally tabled its response to the recommendations included in August's Vertigan cost-benefit analysis of the rollout and operation of the National Broadband Network.

Most of the Vertigan review's major recommendations have been endorsed, which isn’t especially startling given how diligently the review cleaved to positions already advocated by the federal government. Thus did a largely pointless exercise come full circle, forming a closed loop: the government endorses the review that endorsed the government. Money well spent.

The meatiest of the endorsements seem disproportionately designed to combat TPG’s foray into FttB deployment, a move that most analysts agree will only have a minor impact upon the NBN.

NBN Co is to abandon universal wholesale pricing.

You may recall that universal wholesale pricing was a core component of the original NBN design. This stipulated that users in rural or regional areas would pay the same prices as users in metropolitan areas, despite the fact that running infrastructure to remote areas is considerably more expensive.

Thus of course meant that metropolitan customers would effectively cross-subsidise other customers - a deliberate measure aimed at shrinking the crippling digital divide separating country and city. Such a mechanism is inimical to competition, but deliberately so. Competition is what created the digital divide in the first place; free markets are ill-equipped to ensure equitable delivery of services.

Such regulation was anathema to a conservative government, and it hardly proved surprising when the Vertigan review recommended it be changed. The goal is to enabling NBN Co to compete with alternative infrastructure providers (i.e. TPG) in lucrative (i.e. high-density) areas. It could only do this, apparently, by being able to sell services cheaper in the city than in the country.

There will be a ‘wholesale price cap’, which will legislate that the basic NBN service – a 12/1 Mbps service – cannot cost more than $24 per month (that is the wholesale price, not retail). However, there’s no price cap on higher speed tiers.

The upshot is that country users will continue to pay more than city users, especially if they want anything better than the basic NBN service.

NBN Co competitors must structurally separate.

Part of the original vision for the NBN was the removal of Telstra as the dominant infrastructure provider in Australia. For many years Telstra had retained a monopolistic position that was anything but ‘natural’, since it had been bequeathed to it as a former government owned entity (first as part of the Post Master General’s office, then as Telecom Australia).

Thus did Australia’s largest telecommunications retailer also own most of the infrastructure, which meant that its retail services inevitably had a clear advantage over competitors, even after Telstra was compelled to sell wholesale services to those competitors. Structurally separating Telstra’s wholesale and retail components in theory curtailed this competitive advantage. It also meant that Telstra would compete with NBN Co at an infrastructure level.

The Vertigan review recommends that this same condition be applied to any other NBN Co competitor. For argument’s sake, let’s call this competitor TPG. TPG, or anyone else who installs infrastructure that competes directly with NBN Co (such as the Australian mainland), will now have to maintain a wholesale division that is disconnected from the retail division. The wholesale division will have to sell services to competitors at the same rates as it sells them to its own retail division. Given that this would largely take away the commercial advantage of running your own fibre, this should effectively stop anyone from competing with NBN CO in FttB deployments.

The ACCC will be given new powers to police this.

NBN Co must get ready to separate itself, just not yet.

Although this wouldn't happen until the NBN rollout is compete, the goal now is that NBN Co will separate into various divisions, for satellite, fixed wireless, FttX, HFC and transit networks: "However, optionality for future restructuring or disaggregation should be retained, to provide future governments with greater policy and financial flexibility."

Reading between the lines - and reading the actual lines of someone who uses 'optionality' with a straight face is a harrowing task - it seems clear that the goal of this fragmentation - sorry,disaggregation - would be to make NBN Co more attractive when it is to be sold off. Thankfully there's no reason to believe the privatisation of a national telecommunications monopoly will have anything but positive ramifications. 

The Vertigan Panel's CBA also advocated the deployment of a Multi-technology Mix version of the NBN, instead of the original full fibre version. The government has of course already endorsed this. Indeed, they endorsed as vigorously as they could, by going ahead with it months before the CBA was even delivered.

ACMA 2014 Communications Report

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has released its annual Communications Report for 2013-2014. It charts Australian telecommunications and data trends over the last twelve months.

Since the Report arrived with rather less fanfare than, say, the teaser for the new Star Wars film, there’s a chance you may have missed it. It’s also rather longer, coming in at perusal-resistant 130 pages. Luckily, Dog and Bone has perused it on your behalf. Here are the highlights:

1. DATA USAGE

- Overall data downloads have increased from 676,898TB in the 2013 June quarter to 1,034,959TB in the 2014 June quarter, an increase in 52.9%.

- This is the first time Australians downloaded more than a million terabytes in a single quarter. Aussie, Aussie, Aussie...

- Breaking those figures down, mobile handset downloads increased by 97.3%, for the first time eclipsing the amount downloaded via mobile broadband connections, which only increased by 20.2%. This reflects the increasing sophistication of mobile handsets, and the increasing use of tethering.

- Don’t let those numbers fool you, though! Mobile data usage remains a mere drop in the bucket. Fixed data downloads increased by 52.9%, to 963,429TB. Fixed data usage thus accounts for about 93% of total downloads for the most recent quarter.

- This is why we’re building a National Broadband Network (and why those who continue to insist that mobile data is the way of the future should be ignored.) Fixed data requirements continue to trend sharply upwards, and it is thus only a question of when the current MTM version of the NBN will need to be upgraded to full FttP. The answer is: very soon.

- The average fixed line broadband subscriber downloads 155Gb in the quarter (or about 50Gb per month). Those aren’t heavy users – that’s the average user.

- The number of registered ISPs in Australia decreased from 77 to 71, reflecting ongoing (yet slowing) market consolidation.

- 4G mobile data usage showed very strong growth across all carriers. Vodafone launched its 4G network in this period, while both Optus and Telstra expanded their networks dramatically. Augmenting this is the fact that an increasing number of customers renewed their 24 month contracts in this period, an enjoyed a much larger pool of 4G handsets to choose from.

2. PHONE USAGE

- Total mobile services (voice and data) fell by 0.3%, which is the first time this has occurred. This can be attributed to a decrease in use of mobile broadband devices (dongles, USB modems etc), since the number of actual phones rose by 4.7%, to over 20.5 million. Of this, smartphone use rose by 7.9%, owing to the increasing penetration of inexpensive yet high-quality handsets.

- On the other hand (and  not surprisingly), the number of registered fixed line numbers continued to decrease (by 2.4%).

- Overall, trends in telephony usage appear to have flattened out, compared to the drastic shifts of the last decade and a half, although the number of people for whom the mobile phone is their only phone continued to increase (by another 33.2%).

- The number of calls placed to emergency numbers (000, 112 etc.) continued to fall, to about 8.4m, from a high of 9.4m in 2012.

- The number of payphones decreased by 4.9%.

OTHER CATEGORIES

- The overall value of e-commerce increased from $237b to $246b per quarter (3.8%), which is smaller than we would have anticipated.

- There was virtually no change in the number of broadcast licences.

- There was a 9.1% increase in disclosure of customer information to law enforcement agencies, from 685,757 in 2013 to 748,079 in the quarter to June 2014. Bear in mind that is per quarter. That’s quite staggering.

- Complaints to the TIO declined by 12.4%, which is excellent news.

The full ACMA 2013-2014 Communications Report can be downloaded here.

Former ACCC Chairman on the NBN, Telstra

Graeme Samuel served with distinction as chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) from 2003 until 2011, a turbulent time in for Australia’s telecommunications industry.

His position often brought him into direct conflict with Telstra (especially under Sol Trujillo when the nation’s premier telco was at its most combative). He was also an instrumental player in the development of the NBN, including the aborted tender process that eventually gave way to the full-fibre model developed by the previous government and the structural separation of Telstra that this entailed.

Yesterday Samuel delivered the annual Charles Todd Oration in Sydney (which was streamed live to Melbourne). His wide-ranging speech touched on many aspects of regulation in the telecommunications industry, most importantly:

  1. He rejected Optus CEO Paul Sullivan’s call for further regulatory constriction on Telstra. Although Samuel’s run-ins with Telstra were notorious (particularly the ever-reasonable Phil Burgess), he insisted that Telstra’s wings have already been sufficiently clipped.
  2. Relating to this, he believes that the real issues to come won’t be infrastructure monopolies but content monopolies, as the big players strive to hoover up existing content, thus strengthening their bundled offerings. He feels that Telstra is in a particularly strong position here, because of its stake in Foxtel. However, Samuel is unsure precisely what role the ACCC can play here.
  3. Free-to-air television networks enjoy a ‘high level of protection’ under current regulation, including anti-siphoning laws that mandate certain content (such as live sports) cannot be exclusively delivered by Pay-TV providers. He implied that this inherently anti-competitive practice has curtailed innovation.
  4. Samuel – in agreement with the Vertigan Panel Review – believes that telecommunications regulation should be removed from the ACCC’s purview. Although the ACCC would continue to enforce competition laws, he advocated creating an ‘essential services commission’. This would combine the power all utility regulators into a single body, which would work on ‘analytical issues, mainly focussed around the pricing and conditions of access to monopoly and quasi-monopoly services.’ It would thus include aspects of both the ACCC and the ACMA, as well as energy regulators.
  5. Although he agrees with some aspects of the Vertigan Review, there are other parts he believes are misleading.  Overall he was critical of the current government's obsession with NBN reviews, which he felt were ‘politically tarnished’ and were proving detrimental to progress. The Scales report was singled out as being particularly bad: not only ‘factually wrong’ but ‘insulting and offensive’.
  6. Samuel doesn’t consider TPG’s rollout of FttB services to high-value customers to constitute a serious threat to NBN Co, contrary to the anguished cires of Bill Morrow and Ziggy Switkowski that this will propel us down a slippery slope.
  7. He felt that the TPG situation was the result of the hidden cross-subsidy conditions governing NBN pricing. In other words, prices are artificially high in urban areas to subsidise regional access, which allows smaller players such as TPG to swoop and undercut with cheaper infrastructure. 

Telstra to Raise Fixed Line Prices

In a move not calculated to inspire goodwill in the average citizen, Telstra has insisted that it has no choice but to raise the wholesale costs of fixed line services by 7.2 per cent.

It ‘must’ do this because of the anticipated churn of customers away from Telstra-owned copper services to the NBN. Telstra argues that although some of these losses would be offset by the decreased strain on the copper network (and as large parts of it are decommissioned), it wouldn’t be enough.

In its submission to the ACCC's Final Access Determination (FAD) inquiry, Telstra claimed that it expects demand for fixed line services to fall by about 62 per cent by 2019. They argue as that their network costs are largely fixed (this is debatable going forward), with fewer remaining users the cost per user must rise.

On the other hand, it could be argued – indeed it has been argued – that the payments Telstra is to receive from NBN Co already cover this churn. NBN Co is already paying both for the use of the last-mile copper (for FttN etc), and per customer that churns away from Telstra. Surely this last payment covers the issue over which Telstra is crying poor? Are Telstra just trying to double-dip on subscriber-loss payments?

Not so according to Telstra, and not so according to the Department of Communications, who concurred that NBN Co’s current payments (which are being renegotiated, anyway) are ‘irrelevant’ to his matter:

“Payments by NBN Co to Telstra are generally irrelevant to the ACCC’s determination of [fixed line service] FLS access prices because the costs these payments relate to are not included in the cost of FLSs provided by Telstra.

“Consequently, the costs of the Telstra assets used by NBN Co should be recovered separately from NBN Co (unregulated sale or lease proceedings), and the costs of the assets used to provide FLSs should be recovered separately from the access seekers that use the FLSs.”

The Department also warned that setting the fixed line access price too low, Telstra might inadvertently slow down the churn of customers to the NBN, which kind of sounds like an endorsement for Telstra’s price-rise. But given that fixed line services aside from those provided by the NBN are switched off two years after NBN services are installed in an area, I don’t see how this matters. You have to churn, anyway. 

It seems relevant to us, especially when the customers whom this will most effect are those who can least afford it.

The Week: Of 13s and 000s

New research by ACMA reveals issues with mobile calls to 13 numbers, while the Department of Communication launches a review of the Triple Zero Operator.

Issues with 13 Numbers

New research by the Australia Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has revealed that about a third of Australians have held off making a 13 or 1300 call on their mobile in the last year due to fears of cost.

It is also revealed that many customers have no idea what the actual costs are. Many mobile users believed the calls to be free, or at a fixed rate (they're a fixed cost on landlines only), while many weren't sure if 13 calls were even included in their current plan.

For the record, on most plans calls to 13 are treated as timed calls like any other 'national' call, and are included in your plan value. There are exceptions, however, and it pays to be sure!

While on the face of it this seems like the last serious issue imaginable, in certain cases it can be crucial. 13 numbers are often used by businesses to provide a single point of entry for call centres, via an easily remembered number. Taxi companies use them, as do pizza delivery chains, among many, many others.

More importantly, so do government departments, such as Centrelink, as well as mental health and disability services. Unfortunately the ACMA did not determine how many of those unmade calls were for important issues, or how many simple resulted in an unordered pizza. Hopefully it was few.

There is a continuing campaign to charge 13 (and 1300) calls at a fixed rate even for mobiles, as they are for landlines. After all, this was the original intention behind the scheme: calls are charged a small flat rate (typically 30c), while the true cost of the call is borne by the business etc.

The ACMA's full report can be found here. (Fair warning - it's pretty dreary reading, as you'd expect 25 pages about 13 calls patterns might be.)

 

Review of the National Triple Zero (000) Operator

The Department of Communications has announced a review into the future direction of Australia's National Triple Zero (000) Operator. As you're no doubt aware, the 000 operator provides a centralised service whereby calling Triple Zero from anywhere in Australia allows immediate referral to relevant emergency services.

The review will examine future directions for this service, including the possibility of expanding it beyond voice-only. The submission portion of the review only runs until August 22, 2014, so if you'd like to make a submission there isn't much time.

Further information - including the Terms of Reference, Discussion Paper, and an online survey - can be found at the Dept of Communications website.

 

The Week: Generous Treatment

NBNCo Chairman Ziggy Switkowski appeared last night on ABC's The Business, whereupon he was invited to expound upon most aspects of the National Broadband Network. He was treated, to put it mildly, generously.

Host Ticky Fullerton is to be commended for addressing almost all pertinent points. Indeed, I did not note that any substantial issues - alterations to the NBN, competition, NBNCo performance, TPG, Bill Morrow, Telstra negotiations, copper network upkeep, plus others - were omitted. Having supplied the topics however, viewers were invited to watch Dr Switkowski construct a platform from them, from which he was permitted to declaim uncontested.

These are contentious issues, but for the most part his answers weren't sufficiently examined. At one point he mentioned NBNCo's mission to deliver 'high quality, upgradeable bandwidth connectivity'. It was a resonant and complex phrase that cried out for dissection.

For starters, whether the mutli-technology model (MTM) NBN is truly 'high quality' is not merely a question of opinion, but one of geography. Fullerton might have pointed out that there will be large parts of the country for which the NBN will not be high-quality, by any reasonable standard.

'Upgradeable' is also a fraught term. While no one would decry the capacity for any piece of technology to be further upgraded, in this context it hides the reality that parts of this NBN will need to be upgraded rather sooner than one might hope. In the case of the copper network, large parts of it will have to be upgraded to fibre within the next decade, at a large cost that has not been factored into current modelling. Switkowski suggested these upgrades would be done reactively, in response to market needs.

We're a far cry from Tony Windsor's declaration after the 2010 election that 'You do it once, you do it right, you do it with fibre.' It turns out you do it repeatedly, with whatever is to hand. Switkowski's weasel-term here was 'fit-for-purpose', a tried and trusted method of glossing over a lack of forward-planning. 

Optus Apology

Back in February, the Supreme Court of Victoria found that an Optus television ad breached the Australian Consumer Law by implying that the geographical coverage of its mobile network was almost equal to that of Telstra's. Optus argued that they'd implied no such thing, and to be fair one can see their point. Sadly for them, Justice James Elliott did not.

The upshot was that Optus was ordered to issue a public apology, and to allow any customers who signed up to an Optus mobile plan between January 26 and May 26 2014 to cancel their contract without penalty. Yes, that is correct - this court order even covers Optus customers who haven't yet signed up. I suppose there's no better time to try out Optus than the next month.

Last week Optus tried to get out of issuing an apology in print, offering the fairly audacious argument that newspapers are a dying medium. The judge was unconvinced, and the apology - a study in grudging acquiescence - appeared yesterday in a range of publications.

Telstra 3G Data Speed Cap Lifted

Good news for customers of any MVNO that relies on wholesale Telstra mobile services, which mainly means Aldi Mobile. ZDNet is reporting that Telstra has announced it will soon remove the speed cap on the 3G data services.

Previously the cap was set at 7.2Mbps, which is pretty close to the top speed you're feasibly likely to see on a 3G mobile network in real-world circumstances. Average speeds generally sit well below that, anyway, but this news will presumably thrill that small subset of customers who a) are capable of higher 3G speeds and b) were even aware they were being throttled.