Telstra may be forced to rethink the way it deals with requests from NBN Co to use existing copper or HFC cables to pull fibre up from the kerb to connect a house to the National Broadband Network.
The regulatory snag emerged in a consultation paper published by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) on so-called 'pull through' requests. (pdf)
Pull through enables fibre to be drawn through an existing lead-in conduit by disconnecting a cable already in the conduit, attaching the fibre to it, and pulling the fibre up the pipe.
It is intended as a 'last resort' method of making a connection and is expected to only be used for a "small percentage" of fixed connections to the NBN, according to a Telstra presentation (pdf).
NBN Co has confirmed it only plans to use pull through in cases where it can't push the fibre up through the existing lead-in conduit, and where it believes the conduit is in good enough condition to support the pulling action.
If 'push through' fails and the conduit is in poor condition, a new lead-in may be dug or the house will be connected via aerial fibre, the ACCC noted.
Pull through only becomes an option once NBN Co has declared an area as being 'ready for [retail] service'. Contractors effectively skip homes where pull through is considered possible, and only come back to do the job if the end customer lodges a retail order for an NBN service.
Telstra has only one hour to confirm with an NBN contractor that an existing copper or HFC cable can be used for a pull through operation. This is regardless of whether the end customer has a retail connection with Telstra or through one its wholesale (ISP) customers.
At issue is whether ISPs will get any warning of when a pull through is actually approved by Telstra.
Telstra plans to have ISPs consent generally "on a global basis" to allow pull through to occur for their end customers. It has been consulting with wholesale customers on the matter since July 2012.
The specific timing of an approved pull through request is important because the process means disconnecting the existing copper or HFC cable, resulting in a loss of service.
ISPs want some advanced notice from Telstra to be able to inform the end user of the impending cut, and to put diversions or other service alternatives in place.
The ACCC raised concerns in its consultation paper that under Telstra's current proposal, "wholesale customers would appear to lose control over the timing of pull through and the capacity to minimise the period of any service outage and disruption to the supply of communication services to any individual customers for whom pull through would not be appropriate."
"The ACCC understands that in the course of Telstra's consultation, wholesale customers suggested a process by which they could better manage the consequences of pull through for their end users than under a global consent model," the watchdog noted.
"This involves a communication being provided to the wholesale customer ahead of the pull through being undertaken.
"This would allow the wholesale customer to contact the end user and assist them in establishing a call diversion service, or if necessary, to withdraw consent."
ISP consent for pull through is optional, though the ACCC noted that wasn't ideal.
The watchdog made several suggestions to rectify the communication breakdown, but it noted they may add costs and limit "NBN Co's capacity to undertake pull through in a timely manner".
At risk of cuts
Customers most at risk of the adverse impacts of pull through are those that use their copper lines for "priority assistance" services, such as medical alerts.
"Where NBN Co is made aware of the existing of priority assistance services, its intention is not to use pull through," the ACCC noted. The watchdog intends to test assurance measures in this area.
"The ACCC understands that NBN Co intends to seek an undertaking from [retail service providers] to use 'reasonable endeavours' to provide NBN Co with information on the existence of any priority assistance or medical alert services at a premises on behalf of which they are lodging a connection order.
"However, it is not clear what steps [retail service providers] will take to fulfil this contractual obligation, or what the consequences would be for the [provider] if they did not comply with that obligation."
The ACCC will also test the adequecy of notification given by Telstra to wholesale customers should a pull through be delayed or otherwise not completed by NBN Co as planned.
Such an event could spell a prolonged service outage for the end customer that their ISP would have to manage.
Telstra currently offers a range of between four hours and two days to forward notice of such an event to a wholesale customer.
The watchdog also raised concerns that Telstra's retail customers might be warned of a pull through problem faster than customers of an ISP that bought wholesale services from the incumbent.
Submissions on pull through conditions close February 1, 2013.
The conditions fall under a broader set of "required measures" that Telstra must gain approval for to finalise the migration of customers from its copper and HFC networks to the NBN.
The watchdog has previously raised concerns over other required measures proposals, such as those related to information security.