The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) says it engaged in a “few exploratory talks” with the federal government about expanding its broadband monitoring project to cover NBN fixed wireless services.
However, the move would cost $6 million over four years and the government has yet to indicate whether it will back the expansion.
The ACCC in March released the first results from the program, which assesses the performance of NBN connections across a variety of retail service providers (RSPs), locations and technology types.
UK company SamKnows runs the program on behalf of the ACCC. Volunteer households install hardware probes, known as ‘Whiteboxes’, which measure a range of broadband performance characteristics.
Monitoring fixed wireless services is feasible but wasn’t within the original design of the program, the general manager of the ACCC’s industry structure and compliance branch, Sean Riordan, today told a parliamentary hearing on the NBN.
The decision to originally limit the program to cover fixed line services was made by the ACCC, he said. The decision was based on the need to “act quickly” in the fixed-line footprint, which accounts for the majority of NBN services.
“There was certainly more acceptance by RSPs of testing of the fixed-line footprint,” he added.
There is a “lot of nervousness” by RSPs about bringing fixed wireless into the scope of the monitoring program.
Funding would be required to install Whiteboxes in a significant number of premises in order to get a statistically valid sample, the hearing was told.
“The fixed wireless service is relatively variable — in some localities it works quite well, in some instances it works quite poorly just on a sporadic basis with weather conditions,” Riordan said.
Currently the program uses around 50 Whiteboxes for each class of customer it wants to measure; for fixed wireless, due to the variability, it would require “a multiple of 50” for each class, he said.
Riordan said that getting a per-RSP breakdown of performance on the fixed wireless service may deliver limited insights because performance problems may relate to network capacity issues.
NBN has acknowledged that a number of fixed wireless cells have capacity problems. NBN CEO Bill Morrow yesterday said that the company was considering whether to throttle the performance of the service for heavy users in order to help address the issue.
Riordan said the ACCC is “engaging quite actively with NBN over their plans for the fixed wireless service”.
He said there were two potential transparency measures that could deliver better outcomes for consumers. One would be for NBN’s monthly progress report to include details of its work addressing capacity issues on the fixed wireless service.
“The other work that we would like to do, is to look to see what consumers are being advised at the time that they’re making their purchase decisions – whether they’re being advised that the service that they’re looking to acquire is actually in a cell that is congested,” he said.
That could affect a consumer’s decision as to whether they purchase an NBN service or retain an ADSL service until the cell is upgraded.