New Zealand begins the long goodbye to its copper network

The Copper Withdrawal Code is nearing completion, while in a separate move Spark announces pilot to end copper-based voice services.

spark telephone wiring

It’s on the way out. Chorus, the owner of the copper network that has provided telecommunication services to New Zealanders for decades, is about to get the nod that it can start withdrawing telco services on the network. Not next week, or next month, but soon after that.

The final rounds of consultation on the Copper Withdrawal Code (CWC), and its companion, the 111 Contact Code (designed to ensure vulnerable customers can make emergency calls in a power cut), are nearing completion. “We are aiming to publish the final code in late September [2020]. We haven’t yet made a decision on when the code will come into force,” a spokesperson for the New Zealand Commerce Commission (ComCom) told Computerworld New Zealand, adding that “the CWC can’t come into force until the 111 Contact Code is in force.”

The CWC sets out the rules for when and how copper services can be withdrawn. Chorus can only stop supplying copper services in areas where users have access to ‘no-cost’ fibre installations. This means areas that fall outside the Ultra Fast Broadband (UFB) network won’t be affected.

The company must also provide three notices to affected users—at six months, three months and then 20 days prior to stopping the supply of copper services.

Chorus spokesperson Steve Pettigrew says it is waiting on the final CWC before identifying in which areas to first turn off copper services. “While Chorus internally talks about our copper network in terms of exchanges and cabinets, in the context of the Copper Withdrawal Code we are mindful to consider the number of customers or end-users potentially impacted at local levels, and ensuring they have a positive journey through their transition to fibre,” he says. “The average copper street cabinet serves about 200 premises. However, within the Specified Fibre Areas (SFAs), many customers will have already moved to fibre and the number of ‘active’ copper connections within the cabinet will be fewer, often significantly fewer.”

Pettigrew notes that in areas outside the UFB, Chorus will continue to invest in and maintain its copper network. “Our copper network continues to provide customers who don’t have access to fibre with dependable, dedicated broadband and phone services,” he says.

The use of copper connections has fallen

The Commerce Commission says that use of the copper network has fallen sharply in the past six years—from a peak of 1.27 million connections in September 2014 to 581,000 in September 2019. The decline is due to businesses and consumers switching to new fibre services enabled by the UFB deployment, as well fixed wireless options.

“About 79% of New Zealanders now have access to fibre-to-the-premises, and that number is expected to grow to 87% by the end of 2022. In 2019, fibre broadband connections overtook copper broadband connections for the first time. At the same time, the numbers of consumers on fixed wireless connections has also been growing. Fixed wireless services, including broadband and voice, are delivered over wireless networks—typically using cell phone towers. In 2019, 11% of broadband connections were fixed wireless,” according to ComCom.

The number of unbundled copper local loop connections—that is copper connections where retail service providers (RSPs) have put their own equipment into exchanges or cabinets—has diminished to 15,000 as at July 2020. The economics of unbundling fibre connections is a lively topic of discussion in the telecommunications industry, with Pettigrew noting previously that “there is a very thin margin to release through unbundling and it’s challenging to arrive at a pricing construct that rewards both the fibre companies and access seekers [the RSPs].”

Pettigrew describes the financial impact on Chorus of withdrawing access to the copper network as mixed. “Within the SFAs, where the majority have already moved to fibre, there are benefits, both financial and environmental, in turning off the copper network and moving everyone to the best possible technology. However, there are also costs that Chorus will need to meet to comply with the Code and migrate customers onto fibre.”

Chorus assumed ownership of the copper network when the company was structurally separated from its parent company Telecom (since rebranded as Spark) in 2011. Telecom had been carved out of the old National Post Office as a state-owned enterprise, before it was sold in 1990, primarily to American companies Bell Atlantic (now AT&T) and Ameritech (now Verizon) and listed on the stock exchange.

Spark begins pilot to move customers off copper landlines

Meanwhile Spark, owner of the PSTN which enables voice services over copper, has announced a pilot to withdraw copper-based services in Devonport in Auckland and Miramar in Wellington. Around 1000 customers in these areas will be informed in September that PSTN services will no longer be sold from 18 December 2020 and will be offered fibre or fixed wireless voice services as alternative options. “The PSTN is at the end of its life cycle and needs to be replaced using new technologies—meaning Spark customers need to move to voice over wireless or voice over fibre. Because some of Spark’s broadband over copper services are also delivered through systems associated with these old switches, Spark has also made the decision to withdraw all of its copper based broadband services in these areas,” says Spark Customer Director Grant McBeath.

He says PSTN components have not been manufactured for 17 years, and skilled operators capable of maintaining the technology “are also getting harder to find. … Our customers have been moving off this technology in droves, and we now need to start completing that process for all customers. When we started the upgrade in 2017, we had over a million customers on the PSTN—it is now around 400,000, with another 10,000 customers on average leaving every month.”

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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