Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The TAF - a brief history

In his speech to the CommsDay Summit 2014 Telstra's Dr Tony Warren said he'd like to see an industry led co-operative process to work out more of the processes for migration to the NBN. 

In part he said:

All of us - regulators, NBN Co and industry - have so far not delivered a consistently positive experience when it comes to switching to the NBN. Telstra offers NBN fibre services in every available market. Across all these markets, end users frequently experience delays and disappointment when they try to switch to the fibre network.

The problems will be well known to many people in this room – including too many premises not actually being fibre ready, connection delays and incomplete product sets. Retailers have encountered their own issues as well. To their credit, NBN Co has improved their performance recently in many areas around the connection experience. However, their efforts have not been helped by the fact that there is currently no single framework with clear responsibilities as people migrate from one network to another.

 Migration necessarily involves multiple parties – only Telstra can disconnect customers from our network; only NBN Co can connect people to theirs; only RSPs can deal directly with their customers; and only the service providers of medical alarms and the like can be responsible for making sure their devices work on the new network...

To bring all these parties together in a more efficient and effective way, we the industry, need to refocus the end-to-end migration process at improving the customer’s experience. This will mean a shift away from traditional regulatory structures. Migration issues are overwhelmingly operational or customer service issues. As such, our view is that industry participants led by the Comms Alliance are best placed to drive the solutions and improve operational efficiency. 

A questioner (Phil Dobbie) asked why an industry process was needed - wasn't migration an NBN issue. In reply , Dr Warren said that he had in mind something like the TAF - but he suggested that only David Havyatt (i.e. your blogger) would be able to explain that.

However, Susan Huggett, now NBN Co's GM of Industry Engagement, was also in the room and knows a lot about the TAF too.

But since the issue has come up I might explain a bit about what the TAF was and did - and of its demise.

The 1997 Telecommunications Act was drafted with an assumption that as multiple parties built infrastructure an active market would develop in wholesale services. It also was based around the principle that industry should be given the opportunity to work out its own issues beore regulators stepped in (the Act's stated objective of maximising self-regulation).

The provision for Industry Codes is relatively well understood - but not necessarily the scope of those Codes. In its original guise as the Australian Communications Industry Forum (ACIF), CommsAlliance wrote codes that covered consumer issues, network issues, cabling issues and operational issues. While most public focus has been on the consumer protection ones, it was the operational and network codes (and associated documents) that had the most significance for market development. For example, mobile number portability comes about by the operation of both a network and operational code. That multiple operators can all operate DSLAMs from one exchange is due to the ULLS Network Deployment Rules.

Separately the Act provided for a Telecommunications Access Forum (the TAF) that worked as part of the declared services regime. It could recommend declaration of services or write standard terms and conditions of access.  I was at about the 4th meeting of the TAF representing AUSTAR (whose subsidiary Windytide had a carrier licence for a small HFC network in Darwin). I returned in 1998 when I joined Hutchinson.

The TAF was mostly a great battleground between Telstra and the rest of industry. The standard terms and conditions for the deemed declared services (those that were declared by the 1997 Act because they already were supplied to Optus and Vodafone) were relatively quickly settled.

The next great TAF issue was over whether the service description for mobile terminating and originating services should be amended to include CDMA networks (the deemed service declaration referred only to GSM). I attended a meeting in late 1999 representing Hutch and argued vigorously against the variation - we didn't think we needed regulation for access to our network. Susan represented Optus and argued vigorously for the variation to capture Hutch's and Telstra's CDMA networks.

Before the next meeting two things happened. I moved from Hutch to AAPT and the ACCC published a paper by Josh Gans and Stephen King that effectively argued the price for mobile terminating access should be zero.

At the first meeting in 2000 then I was arguing completely the opposite case - CDMA should be included. Susan however was now also arguing a completely opposite case - Optus now wanted no regulation of any mobile services. It was, to say the least, a very funny meeting.

The next TAF task was trying to write standard terms and conditions for ULLS, and to consider declaration of a Line Sharing Service. The latter simply didn't progress and it took a few more years for the ACCC to declare it. he ULLS standard terms and conditions were however largely agreed but a few outstanding issues had to in the end be resolved by the ACCC.  The funniest part of these was a battle about what rights parties had if issued with a competition notice. Telstra's representative Mitchell Landrigan implored us to realise the clause was reciprocal and said we should think about how it would help us if we were issued with a competition notice. My reply was "AAPT dreams of having sufficient market power that it could be issued with a competition notice."

The most challenging part of writing the ULLS spec was the question of migration from State A to State B deployment - which was the way we described exchange based DSLAMs and a future hypothetical node based DSLAM. This was a task that we tried to co-ordinate with the technical group - and ultimately failed. The issue was that if both State A and B ran together the DSLAM at the node would have to be powered back to an extent that it largely matched the exchange based. And there was little incentive to resolve it in 2000 because it would only have been Telstra at the node/pillar.

While the TAF never finalised a recommendation on declaration nor indeed a standard terms and conditions, it actually very valuably reduced the set of decisions/determinations left to the ACCC to make.

However, during the Productivity Commission review of the operation of Parts XIB and XIC everyone other than Telstra and AAPT argued the TAF was pointless and should be abolished. When the PC ultimately made that recommendation Telstra's rep (Mitchell) and I pointed out to our colleagues on the TAF that there was no legislative requirement that it exist and it could be dissolved by its members. So on a resolution moved by AAPT and Telstra it was decided to wind up the organisation. However, I think technically it never met after that day but the industry was so captive of the idea of regulation that it waited till the legislation was changed before the TAF formally ceased.

It is somewhat strange in a period where the industry is again considering regulatory structures - both through red tape reduction and the Vertigan review - to hear the TAF being referred to. It is less strange when I realise that once NBN Co was formally established it decided to walk away from the multilateral process started by Gary McLaren with CommsAlliance that gave the industry a head start on the NBN architecture. Equally NBN Co thought the way to develop an access agreement was to negotiate it with the ACCC rather than industry. It was a hoot to hear the early NBN Co presentations about "deep dives" with access seekers. Only later did they realise the value of a multilateral process through the Product Development Forum.

There is now a separate concern that the PDF is becoming a substitute for public policy discussion. The reports today that proposed product specs for the FTTN products will not guarantee upload speeds beyond 1 Mbps are cause for concern. This is fundamentally a policy issue - as Microsoft CEO Pip Marlow has noted upload speeds are critical for utilisation of cloud services. This should not be a discussion conducted in a private forum.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Nothing to see here - move on please


Troy Bramston's big story under the heading "Labor to loosen its union links" was nothing more than a repeat of what various Labor bods had said all week - that the union links would be "loosened" by no longer requiring members to be unionists.

I don't know why anyone thinks this is a big reform - because it doesn't already apply. And even if some Branch Secretary somewhere is insisting on it, under current rules in NSW you can join any branch in your state electorate, or you can join the "Central Policy Branch". 

Evidently Mr Shorten is going to announce "his plans" in Melbourne on Monday.

Apart from that big "news" the Bramston column is otherwise a news report of an Op Ed that appears in the same paper - by NSW General Secretary Jamie Clements.

Oh and one other item - the suggestion that delegates will be directly elected to national conference, that the party is considering "centralising membership and making membership rules uniform".  Which is al pointless and meaningless because control of the party happens at State Conferences, not National ones. And the party structure is technically a Federal one - the State organisations and the national organisation have their own rules.

Now it might indeed be easier to achieve real reform were the party to centralise, but I don't see that happening.

The biggest joke of the lot was in the Clements column where he rejected the Stephen Loosley idea of conference decisions being non-binding. He wrote:

"I've always believed Labor conferences create a good litmus test. They provide Labor leaders with a forum to argue their case for reform. To convince the public, our leaders hone their arguments before representatives of Labor's rank and file and affiliated union members. If you can't convince your Labor colleagues, you won't convince the voters."

This is just outright fantasy. The "key reforms" he claims Hawke and Keating took to conference first were actually narrow pieces over privatisation and uranium mining. Nothing like it has happened at a NSW Conference over recent years - except the rolling of a Premier. The leader only appears for the orchestrated triumphal entry after the mandatory video-clip to a rapturous standing-ovation. Every vote is decided before conference starts on the block votes of the aligned unions.

It is hard to believe that there has ever been a person whose view was changed by the debate at conference, and even less whose vote would have changed.

So be ready - as I predicted yesterday we are going to have another round of leader announced "reforms" around which the membership must coalesce.

Footnote: Today's Australian was also dominated by the story of the ALP number one position holder in the WA Senate by-election, Joe Bullock, giving a speech that revealed he was not exactly in tune with modern Labor. I don't recall him from University but his claim that he was the one to convince Abbott to join the Liberals was part of the same David Marr story that revealed the punch.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

The stirrings of Labor Reform - yet again.

Interesting tweet by Troy Bramston tonight
This follows a week of media discussion of reform - starting with three separate articles in The Australian  on Monday.

The first picked up some  comments from Tanya Plibersek on Sunday television which followed on from an earlier discussion about the rules where Bill Shorten had suggested weakening the union ties - by no longer requiring party members to be members of a union.

The second was a contribution from former NSW General Secretary and Senator Stephen Loosley.  After a discussion about Tony Blair's UK reform - notably the jettisoning of the Rule 4 nationalisation platform - he goes on to suggest Shorten needs to find something similarly iconic. He rejects the idea that this might come by reviewing the "socialist objective" because "it is so old, it now has mould growing on it".

The genius recommendation is to make a rule that the decisions of conferences are only advisory and no longer binding on the parliamentary parties. This we are told "At a single stroke it would eliminate any claim that Parliamentary Labor is subject to the dictates of trade union affiliates." The funny thing is though it wasn't following a decision of conference that Paul Howes got his head all over TV taking credit for the knifing of KRudd.

The third contribution was an editorial that smeared the ALP for the Williamson and Thompson convictions and called on Labor to "think carefully about its future ties to the union movement." It also called on Labor to throw its support behind the royal commission into union corruption.

No one unfortunately pointed out to the Oz that the ordinary legal processes had already worked just fine, and that what Labor had called for was a police Strike Force - which would be more likely to result in prosecutions than a Royal Commission.

There have been further dribbles since. The Victorian Fabians had a forum on the issue, based on which Latika Burke interviewed Andrew Giles.
The speech Giles gave to the Fabians was thin on specifics. In the interview he defended the union association and spoke very generally about the need to create extra ways for people to "have a say" in the party. He really is trying to encourage discussion leading up to the National Conference in 2015. But everyone is crazy if they think Bill Shorten's address to the National Policy Forum provided much insight.

My own views are very straight forward - the most essential reform is breaking union control of conferences and party structures. Not all unions are affiliated, so when people talk about there being 2 million trade unionists, remember that only half of those or less belong to affiliated unions (or more strictly affiliated divisions of unions). But really it is the union movement that has as much to gain by breaking the ties as it is the ALP.

But the real risk we face now is a re-run of reform under Crean and Gillard. The leader will make a pronouncement, that will not have been consulted on widely. Very rapidly the party power structure will enforce a position that it is more important to appear to be unified than it is to have a meaningful debate. As a consequence "party reform" will rapidly be defined as doing whatever Bill says.

I will hold the rest of my fire until I see what pronouncements are made tomorrow - or at least what has been dropped by Shorten's office to Bramston. This may be more of a kite flying exercise, a trial run to see the reaction to the proposals when written up by Bramston as what Shorten will announce.