The communications watchdog today said it urgently needs to regulate the way ISPs seek permission from end users to buy fibre services without battery back-up.
In a discussion paper released today, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) raised concerns that "vulnerable end users" might be talked into foregoing battery back-up without fully understanding the risks of doing so.
Such risks include not being able to make phone calls over fibre when mains power is out.
The ACMA is proposing to create a set of rules that lay out exactly how ISPs should seek and record the decision of end users with respect to the installation or non-installation of a battery back-up unit.
The ACMA argued that leaving the rules to industry to sort out — either on an ad hoc basis, via guidelines or an industry code — is undesirable, particularly because nothing is strictly enforceable and there are few avenues for recourse.
Battery back-up units are now optional for fibre users courtesy of a decision taken by NBN Co and the former Labor government mid last year. That policy position has now also been endorsed by the new federal government.
NBN Co expects only 50 percent of fibre users will opt for a battery back-up unit, when given the choice. Those that do without are expected to use mobile services in times when fixed voice services are out.
Left to their own devices
Customers can start ordering fibre services without battery back-up through retail ISPs from December 19 this year.
How the ISP goes about convincing the end user of the relative benefits of having battery back-up versus not having it will be initially governed by "guidelines (including checklists)" supplied to it by NBN Co.
"[Providers] must make their own decisions about the type and extent of information that should be provided to end users to ensure that end users make a properly informed decision about whether to have a backup power supply or not," the ACMA noted.
The ACMA makes it clear it wants to see ISPs use a consistent approach "to allow end users to make the 'correct' decision".
There is some urgency to have this happen, given the first NBN fibre customers will have their copper services forcibly disconnected starting in May 2014.
The ACMA is concerned that customers who leave the copper-to-fibre transition until the last minute might not understand why battery back-up is important.
"It is expected that end users who have not voluntarily migrated to the NBN at an earlier opportunity might include consumers who are more vulnerable, such as older persons and those with limited English language fluency," the ACMA said.
"Where the options available are not well understood, such consumers have an elevated risk of making poor decisions which do not reflect their critical needs."
Back-up for FTTN?
Battery back-up policies apply only to the fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) portion of the NBN project which, under the present government, represents only a small percentage of the total network.
The ACMA said battery back-up supplies were "technically viable" either at the node or at end-user premises under a fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) deployment model.
However, it noted a present lack of clarity around what battery back-up options — if any — would be afforded to FTTN users.
"If a backup power supply is located at the node, end users need to be made aware that NBN services will only offer a limited period of continuity of service in the event of a mains power failure," the ACMA said.
"If a backup power supply is an option for installation at end-user premises, similar information issues arise to a FTTP deployment model, such as the need for periodic battery replacement."
Additional reporting by Ry Crozier.