Optus calls for Telstra split by 2010

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Optus calls for Telstra split by 2010

Optus has made a submission to the Federal Government's review of telecommunications regulation calling for Telstra to be structurally separated by 2010.

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The Singtel-owned carrier has made four key suggestions to the Government on how to deal with Telstra's market dominance prior to rolling out the National Broadband Network.

First, that Telstra should be structurally separated into an access providing wholesale company and a retail company.

Second, that Telstra's access company should be obligated to provide the same prices and terms to competitors as its retail business.

Third, that access pricing should be aligned to Telstra's costs; and fourth that the ACCC should be given more power to regulate the sector.

The main problem to address, said Andrew Sheridan, general manager of regulatory affairs at Optus, is that Telstra's current ownership structure gives it the "incentive and opportunity" to discriminate against other players in the industry.

Optus' central recommendation is for Telstra to be "structurally separated" into an access business and a retail business, each with its own independent board and management, with strict rules in place which enforce the separation of brand, employee incentives and financial reporting.

The access business would not necessarily need to be spun out under such a proposal, the submission said. Telstra shareholders could merely receive a share in both the retail business and access business for every existing Telstra share owned.

Sheridan told iTnews it is important the competition debate moves beyond functional separation - the means by other incumbent carriers (such as BT and Telecom New Zealand) have been regulated.

"Functional separation would certainly be a vast improvement on the arrangements we have today," he said. "But I feel they still don't quite address the problem of the incumbent's incentives to cheat."

In the UK, Sheridan said, "there is still that temptation of [BT's wholesale division] Open Reach management to act in the interest of the wider [BT] group rather than just Open Reach."

Without structural separation, Sheridan said Governments are forced to enforce "detailed and complex ring fencing rules" to control the relationship between the different business units of the carrier.

"Those rules can work, but to work effectively the incumbent has to buy-in not only to the details of the rules but also the spirit of the rules," he said.

"I am sceptical of Telstra's capacity to buy into the spirit of functional separation. They have always had this tendency to try and get around the rules, to have some clever lawyer work out ways to bend them to the disadvantage of competitors."

The submission says Telstra's access business should own and operate all Telstra's network assets and should be obligated to provide the same prices and terms to competitors as its retail business.

The submission also says that access pricing should be aligned to Telstra's costs.

Sheridan told iTnews that doesn't necessarily mean Telstra's access company isn't entitled to earn profits - just not the ridiculous margins it earns today. He said Telstra in some cases earns 80 per cent profit margin on long distance calls.

A better regulated Telstra should be entitled to earn "a normal rate of return on its investment," he said.

With the right ownership and incentive structure within Telstra, Sheridan hopes the ACCC would actually have far less work to do settling disputes and insuring competition. But he nonetheless feels the ACCC's powers and competition law needs to be addressed.

"You could drive a bus through most of the regulations we have today," he said.

With submissions to the regulatory review due by June 3, Sheridan said a "best case outcome for consumers" would be for the Government to introduce new legislation in the winter session (September) to come into effect by 2010.

"We are pleased the Government recognises that we have a dysfunctional market and an ineffective regulatory regime, which leads to poor consumer outcomes," he said. "We are particularly heartened that the Government has said they will fix this up.

"We should introduce these reforms now. Let's embrace the right model today, and the competition will help the industry get ready for the NBN. The prospects of the NBN will be better served by a large number of well-funded viable players competing than the current scenario."

Read on to page two for Sheridan's predictions for how structural separation would affect Telstra shareholders and Optus.

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