Telstra has shed light on what appears to be a growing, though largely undocumented, service quality problem with the NBN, where retailers are given less than an hours' notice of "planned" works.
In a submission to the ACCC’s review of NBN Co’s special access undertaking (SAU), Telstra said that "millions" of its customers had been "impacted by planned outages" between January and May of this year alone.
"Almost half of those planned outages did not meet the 10-day notification SLA [service level agreement]," Telstra revealed.
"For many customers subject to a ‘planned’ outage, Telstra received less than one hours' notice.
"Further, most planned outages that did not meet the 10-day SLA occurred during core business hours (9am-5pm) meaning a direct and noticeable impact on NBN services."
iTnews has observed individual customer reports of "planned" NBN works being notified either at the last minute, or potentially after an outage has begun, but it was not previously clear just how often this occurred, and how many users might be impacted.
Telstra points to the existence of additional data on the issue in an appendix to its submission; however, the appendix is blank due to confidentiality clauses enforced by NBN Co.
An NBN Co spokesperson said the company "does [its] best to provide advanced notice of planned maintenance to internet retailers wherever possible, but in some instances where urgent work is required, this may not always be possible."
"We seek to schedule these necessary upgrade works at times that will minimise disruption to customers, however some work will need to be conducted during daylight hours to help minimise impacts for customers and for health, safety and environment requirements," the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson said that "more often than not" it provided "10 or more days notice for planned maintenance so they have enough time to inform their customers."
They also said that "the majority" of planned maintenance runs from 12am-6am.
NBN Co did not offer any statistics on its maintenance notifications.
One possibility is that third-party companies that NBN Co relies on, such as utilities, may be responsible for some last-minute works. However, there were no statistics available to quantify the root causes of eleventh-hour outages.
Network at fault
Telstra said it is not just "planned" outage notifications that are a service quality problem for users.
It said that "since 2019, there has been a steady increase in the number of services that experience a fault in their NBN service within 30 days of activation."
"Further, an unacceptable number of services that experience a fault, experience a repeat within 30 days of the fault being addressed by NBN Co," it said.
In addition, if a speed fault is detected that NBN Co can’t adequately resolve, "a customer may be subject to an 18-month remediation period," Telstra said.
"During this time, they will have a degraded NBN service and may be reliant on an RSP-provided solution, such as 4G modem back-up."
Telstra also said that under the current wholesale broadband agreement (WBA) - a commercially negotiated set of terms, though one RSPs say suffers from a significant power imbalance in NBN Co’s favour - "a customer can experience up to 10 drops in their NBN service a day before it can be classified as a fault (rather than a performance incident) and NBN Co [is] obliged to investigate and rectify the issue within agreed fault timeframes which are shorter."
iTnews has previously analysed the performance incident thresholds; RSPs say those thresholds are set too high, and that users will complain long before the thresholds for action from NBN Co are met.
In its own submission [pdf] to the SAU process, TPG indicated it had similar problems with "hundreds of unplanned outage tickets" that NBN Co publishes every day.
A ticket could impact "a handful of services to hundreds of services" and could mean an outage of minutes to "sometimes hours".
"NBN Co does not publish this information quick enough and does not provide sufficient time for us to notify consumers," TPG said.
"This means we could be answering and troubleshooting calls from customers about their NBN service being down, only to be told an hour later there is a known NBN Co outage.
"The consumer is left with an impression there is an issue with their RSP, when in fact the root of the problem is NBN Co’s inability to quickly notify RSPs of unplanned outages.
"NBN Co ought to implement close to real time outage notification."
SAU and service
Telstra's and TPG's comments were made in response to an SAU revision that, as of yesterday, has been withdrawn by NBN Co at the request of the government.
The now-binned revision offered little in the way of commitments to service quality standards, a bugbear of retail service providers (RSPs) generally who saw NBN prices rising with no correlated change to service quality.
Minimum service standards are "negotiated" in the wholesale broadband agreement (WBA); however, RSPs want such standards to be enshrined in the SAU instead.
"Baseline service levels should not be a matter for commercial agreement," TPG said.
"Where NBN Co is seeking to immediately increase prices, along with year-on-year price increases, we believe it is reasonable for the SAU to contain minimum service requirements."
That may change as the SAU is redrafted once more by NBN Co.
The ACCC, which is overseeing the SAU process, was yesterday told by Communications Minister Michelle Rowland to put a greater emphasis on service quality in its SAU deliberations.
"I wish to respectfully convey an observation derived from my lived experience as a parliamentarian," Rowland wrote. [pdf]
"Relative to the range of cost pressures being faced by Australian consumers and businesses, they are not complaining to me about the price of NBN services.
"They are primarily concerned with quality and service.
"I have encouraged all stakeholders to keep this in perspective when considering the long-term interests of end users."
That may mean RSPs won't see the quantum of wholesale price reductions they are seeking through the SAU process; however, if service quality improves, it could make NBN prices easier to justify and NBN services more attractive.