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Spark backs fibre access rule review as frustrated customers cancel contracts

Thursday 8th September 2016

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Frustrated customers are cancelling their fibre contracts due to installation delays, and two-thirds of those who get connected say they're unhappy with the process, representatives from Spark New Zealand have told the Commerce select committee.

The committee is considering the Telecommunications (Property Access and Other Matters) Amendment Bill, which would change the rules around property access for fibre installation for multi-unit complexes and other shared areas. Currently, people with shared access need permission from their neighbours for fibre cables to be run across shared property.

The bill would see a new consent regime dependent on the fibre installation method, with installations deemed to have no lasting impact - such as a cable buried in the grass on the side of a driveway - not needing consent, though neighbours would still be given at least five working days' notice. Methods with lasting impact, such as a small incision being made in a driveway to conceal a cable, would require neighbours to be given a design proposal which they would have 15 working days to object to on specific grounds before installation went ahead. A high-impact installation, such as a whole driveway being dug up, would still require all parties to agree.

John Wesley-Smith, Spark's head of regulatory affairs, said the delays from current consent requirements were "hugely frustrating and ultimately untenable" for customers, and it was also frustrating for Spark as the telecommunications provider had no control over the process and no ability to help customers solve the problem.

The industry estimates about 250,000 customers in New Zealand are affected by the consent rules, and more than 100,000 of those are Spark customers, Wesley-Smith said. In July, the latest figures available, Spark had nearly 400 customers who were dealing with a right-of-way issues cancel their fibre application.

"Even of those who've succeeded, over two-thirds are unhappy, and I don't blame them," Wesley-Smith said. "This bill will go a long way to reducing frustration for consumers, and for that reason we support it."

Richard Jeffares, the chief operating officer at Ultrafast Fibre, which owns and operates the fibre network in and around Hamilton, Tauranga, Whanganui, and New Plymouth, also spoke in favour of the bill. Delays tend to come from in three forms - lack of consent, overgrown trees delaying an aerial installation, and complex scenarios which require a different form of installation, he said.

"As of last night, we had 1,640 customers waiting in our work-in-progress queue - of those, 33 percent were stuck in a consent-related delay," Jeffares said. The bill "is very important for the end result, which is the citizens want their broadband, and we're seeing pent-up demand today that we as a stakeholder can't help."

Representatives for Northpower, the Whangarei District Council and Federated Farmers also spoke in favour of the bill, as did former ACT MP Heather Roy in her position as chair of the Electricity and Gas Complaints board.

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