Know Your Rights: Threat Of NBN Broadband Limbo Still Looms For Many

New standards will force telcos to reconnect Australians to their old broadband service or mobile broadband within days if an NBN installation fails, but the rules still don't apply to the majority of Aussie homes.

Taking effect on September 21, the new NBN Service Continuity Standard is designed to break the broadband deadlock which has left some Australian homes without home phone and broadband services for months after a failed NBN installation.

While forcing telcos to restore services to these homes quickly, rather than leave them in limbo, the new standards from the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) only apply to homes connecting to the NBN via fibre to the premises or HFC cable.

The standards do not force telcos to reconnect old broadband services to homes which are switching to the NBN via technologies which still rely on parts of the old copper phone network; such as fibre to the node, curb and basement. Accounting for more than half of the nationwide rollout, these homes are still waiting for the ACMA to rule on the safeguards to keep them connected should the NBN leave them in the lurch.

The Communications Alliance, which represents NBN retailers such as Telstra, Optus and TPG, has welcomed the decision, says chief executive John Stanton.

"We are pleased that the ACMA has recognised that it is not sensible to go down the path of reconnecting legacy services in circumstances where fibre to the node or fibre to the curb experience initial connection issues," Stanton says.

"This is because these connections use the same copper infrastructure that previously supported legacy services such as ADSL2, making it impossible to restore the old service and fix the new one at the same time."

Parallel and sequential NBN migrations

The new NBN Service Continuity Standard forces NBN retailers to ensure that a new NBN connection is working before disconnecting a customer's existing "legacy" broadband service, but only when it comes to fibre to the premises and HFC connections.

Switching to these two NBN technologies is dubbed a "parallel migration" by the ACMA, as they involve switching away from the copper network; so it is possible to run the old and new broadband connections side-by-side.

Meanwhile, switching to the NBN via to fibre to the node, curb or basement is dubbed a "sequential migration", as the legacy copper service must be disconnected in order for the NBN service to be connected. This kind of connection is not covered in the new standard.

If an NBN installation fails after a legacy broadband service is disconnected, as part of a parallel migration, that home must be reconnected to their old broadband connection if the NBN fault can not be fixed within three working days, the new standard says.

It is the responsibility of the home's new retail NBN provider to arrange this legacy service, not the responsibility of the legacy broadband provider or NBN Co. The NBN retailer must ensure the consumer can use the telephone number previously used for their legacy service at the same address.

In urban areas, the legacy service must be connected in three to five working days, depending on the amount of work required. This extends to five to ten working days in major rural areas, or 10 working days in minor rural or remote areas. There are allowances of up to 15 working days if a phone number must be ported back to the previous provider.

Breaking Australia's broadband Catch 22

These new rules are one of the measures designed to break the Cease Sale Catch 22, which has blocked homes from returning to legacy services once their area was declared NBN Ready for Service.

Before this Cease Sale deadlock was resolved, NBN Co, Telstra Wholesale, retailers, government regulators and the office of Communications Minister Mitch Fifield all insisted they were not responsible for ensuring that homes stuck in NBN limbo had their legacy services restored.

The wireless broadband loophole

The new NBN Service Continuity Standard still provides loopholes which allow NBN retailers to avoid reconnecting legacy services after a failed parallel migration.

Instead, the NBN retailer can decide to shift that home onto an "interim" service; typically mobile broadband. If this is the case, the retail NBN provider has three working days to connect homes in urban areas. This extends to four working days for homes in major rural areas or six working days for those in minor rural or remote areas.

The interim service might be supplied by an NBN modem with mobile broadband fallback. Alternatively it might rely on a portable mobile hotspot, or affected customers might be instructed to run a hotspot on their smartphone.

While some homes are in poor mobile broadband coverage areas, the Service Continuity Standard does not set a minimum connection speed below which mobile broadband is not considered fit to act as an interim service.

Customers have a choice, sometimes

The new standard states that consumers must "expressly consent" to receiving an interim service rather than reconnecting to their legacy service. Providers must advise the consumer that they are entitled to reconnect to the legacy service if they wish.

While it is cheaper and easier for NBN retailers to shift customers to wireless broadband while they await NBN repairs, this clause makes it harder for them to resist reconnecting legacy services as they did during the Cease Sale debate.

Some NBN retailers such as Optus have a history of heavy-handed tactics when it comes to customer migrations. Optus' behaviour saw the telco slapped with $1.5 million fine after an investigation by Fairfax Media.

Despite the wording of the standard, there are several exemptions open to NBN retailers which would rather shift these homes across to mobile broadband while they away NBN repairs.

NBN retailers are not required to offer customers a choice if they supply an NBN modem with wireless fallback which "immediately and reliably switches to another service, such as mobile broadband, when there is an interruption to the service supplied over the NBN," according to an ACMA spokesperson. Several major retailers including Telstra and Vodafone offer such NBN modems.

Another exception to offering customers a choice of reconnecting to their legacy service is if that service was disconnected for a "valid reason". This could come into play as Optus rushes to decommission its HFC cable network, moving homes across to NBN cable or fibre to the curb.

The NBN retailer is not allowed to bill a customer for their non-working NBN connection while that home is reliant on a legacy or interim service. Nor can they charge extra for the cost of reconnecting the legacy service, instead it must be billed at the same rate as the customer's previous legacy contract.

Meanwhile, interim service charges must not exceed what the customer would have paid if their NBN service was operational. Some telcos are offering to cover the extra mobile data costs incurred when using a smartphone hotspot as an interim service.

For parallel migrations, NBN retailers can't let this legacy/interim situation drag on indefinitely. If the NBN service is not operational within 20 working days, then the NBN retailer must prepare a plan to ensure that home is provided with an operational NBN service "as soon as possible". A copy of that plan must then be sent to the consumer within two working days.

The new standards do not insist that a connection fault must be resolved within 20 working days. It is possible the plan provided by the NBN retailer relies on network remediation – by the retailer or NBN Co – which is not scheduled for months. It is also possible that the fault is related to in-home wiring, which can result in disputes over which party pays for the cost of the repairs.

Still waiting for a ruling in sequential NBN migrations

As for sequential migrations to fibre to the node, curb and basement, NBN retailers are still waiting on the ACMA to lay down the standards for dealing with failed sequential migrations.

Further rules will be released by the end of July, according to an ACMA spokesperson.

"These will deal with post-connection line-testing, to proactively identify faults and ensure services provided over the NBN are working after installation," the spokesperson says.

"They will also deal with continuity of service for sequential connections."

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