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.

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