When I first worked full time in the telco sector approval ratings for telecommunication services were dismal. All too often you’d see 80% of people reporting just how awful it was. Speeds were low, competition was minimal, prices were high. Teresa Gattung famously said the industry used “confusion” as a marketing tool, and was lampooned for it (she was pointing out that it was a bad thing, to be fair).
In 2001 the Minister of Communications Paul Swain introduced a telco-specific regulatory regime that has worked wonders and as a result, customers and service providers alike have benefited. Today we have three competing mobile network operators offering service to more than 99% of the population. We have a fibre to the home service that is the envy of the world and which reaches more than 85% of the population. We have a fast-growing rural connectivity service that will fill in a large percentage of the gap in-between and thanks to competition, telco prices have fallen hugely in the Statistics NZ household survey.
Telecommunications is an essential part of life, with more customers using more products and services on more devices for longer than ever before. Reliability is up, pricing is down, and customers have the power to choose a service that is right for them.
So, it is heartening to read the Commerce Commission’s research into the sector released as part of its review of Retail Service Quality (RSQ) which finds that 78% of customers are either satisfied or very satisfied with the service they consume.
This is a huge turn around and one that we should all be very pleased about. This isn’t the pre-regulation era where there was one monopoly provider (the post office originally) and your only choice was what colour handset you wanted in the hallway. Where toll calls were the only service you could buy and they were hideously expensive.
Today, customers have choice throughout every part of the sector. You can choose fixed or mobile, fast or very fast. You can choose to pay as you go or plan it out in advance.
Customers want certainty in their bills, so it’s no surprise the most popular plans are unlimited ones. For a hundred bucks a month you can have a broadband plan that offers gigabit speeds and unlimited data, so you’ll never have to worry about blowing through your data cap or buying top-up packs or any of that carry on. You just use the internet and be done with it.
And boy, do we use the internet. Over lockdown we saw record levels across the Chorus networks, and that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. With the population largely at home, we used our internet connections for work, for study, for play, and it didn’t miss a beat.
Does that mean the industry is perfect? Of course not. We have lots of things we can tighten up and adjust, and the New Zealand Telecommunications Forum (TCF) is already working on a number of these, including changes to the broadband product disclosure code, updating the customer transfer code and improving the dispute resolution process among numerous other projects.
Today’s customers expect more from their telcos than ever before. If you think about how often you use your phone and what range of services you use it for, you’ll probably see it’s the single most used item and service in your daily life. I probably look at my mobile every two minutes or so all day long. From playing music to banking to playing games to sending messages. I even used it to make a phone call this morning, but that’s quite rare these days.
My broadband is just the same – I use it constantly all day long and then late into the night watching news, movies, the All Blacks. It has been fundamentally important to us here at home during lockdown with seven adults in the house. We’ve all been able to work, study and relax without getting in each other’s way and I can’t imagine things would have been so smooth without it.
Expecting problems never to happen with such a high level of usage is probably unreasonable. But we do aim for that and try to get it right as often as we can. By the look of it, we’re doing OK.
Paul Brislen is the New Zealand Telecommunications Forum CEO