Vodafone NZ is calling time on copper lines.
The service will be switched off on April 1 next year - before which time around 10,000 customers still on copper will have to upgrade to a UFB fibre or fixed-wireless plan. Fixed wireless or "wireless broadband" uses a 4G or 5G mobile network to deliver broadband into a home.
A wider industry development will shift around 470,000 Kiwi homes still on copper off the service over the next few years. That process, which involves a commercial and political bunfight between Chorus and mobile network operators, was supposed to start in September but is now delayed.
But the immediate impetus for Vodafone's decision to hang up on copper is Spark phasing out the public switched telephone network (PSTN system) that it built to handle copper line phone calls back in its Telecom days, and which is used by Vodafone customers still on copper.
Spark says PSTN has simply hit the end of its life, with no manufacturers supporting it anymore. Vodafone NZ experience and commercial director Joe Goddard likens it to the analogue TV switch off. The world's just moved on to better technology.
Goddard says Vodafone will walk people through options if they have concerns about losing their copper line.
For example, although copper has become a creaky, end-of-life technology, it does have the benefit that a landline phone will still work during a power cut (or at least until the batteries in the nearest neighbourhood cabinet run out - which gives you about eight hours), and some older burglar alarms and medical monitors will only work with a copper line.
Working with telcos, the Commerce Commission created a Copper Withdrawal Code to help smooth the process. It outlines a range of remedies for those who lose their ability to make a 111 call during a power cut, as they did with their old copper line. These include battery-powered backups, and in some cases the customer being given an entry-level cellphone.
Vodafone's Goddard says the new options are faster and more reliable and, in most cases, will save people money.
"All Vodafone copper phone customers will have the option to move to a broadband-based calling service to stay connected. Depending on where they live and their personal circumstances, that might be using fibre, wireless broadband, UltraFast HFC or copper broadband access technology," he says.
Customers can keep using their existing landline number on whatever service they choose.
Chorus hits the pause button
A new regulatory regime means that network operator Chorus has the right to withdraw copper line service in areas where UFB fibre is available - currently around 87 per cent of the country.
Chorus had the right to begin withdrawing service from September 1. It had planned to disconnect its first wave of copper lines under a pilot programme beginning in a couple of weeks.
But this morning, spokesman Steve Pettigrew said the lockdown has delayed the programme for at least seven weeks.
"We've kept the retailers [e.g. Vodafone, Spark and 2degrees] up to date on this and have written to those customers who were in the six-month notification window for copper withdrawal."
Chorus wants a softly, softly approach. Over the next 12 months plan is to withdraw copper service from only around 1 per cent (that is, about 5000) of the half-million or so homes remaining on the older technology.
And it is - or was - starting even smaller.
"There were approximately 650 customers in the trial before we hit the pause button," Pettigrew said.
"The majority are clustered around Auckland but some in Napier, Palmerston North, Wellington, Blenheim and Nelson. They were chosen for the trial as they had fewer copper connections remaining."
Chorus has a copper withdrawal map online here.
Telecommunications Forum chief executive Paul Brislen told the Herald that copper had reached the end of this useful life as broadband demand outgrew it - and that those upgrading from the older technology were spoiled for choice.
"Today we have a number of alternatives including fibre to the home for nearly 87 per cent of the population, and fixed wireless or other mobile solutions covering nearly 99 per cent of the population. When you add in the emerging low-Earth orbit satellite market [including Elon Musk's Starlink], the options are tremendous and mean customers should be able to find a superior alternative just about anywhere in the country," Brislen said.
Nevertheless, exactly which alternative customers are steered towards has emerged as a point of contention.
Once it gets under way in earnest, the withdrawal of copper service will intensify competition between Chorus, which manages the lion's share of the UFB fibre network, and mobile operators Spark and Vodafone, who have been recently been making big gains in fixed-wireless - which cuts Chorus, and its wholesale clip of the ticket - out of the loop.
"As long as the customers are taken through the changes carefully explaining that there will be changes, for example, their phone service will not work when there is a power outage, including 111, then customers should notice no difference," Technology Users Association head Craig Young told the Herald.
"My concern would be if providers use this as an excuse to move the customer onto an access technology they do not want or are unaware of."
All the retail telcos sell a range of broadband plans, including those based on UFB fibre. But this year, Chorus complained to the Commerce Commission that Spark and Vodafone were being too front-foot in promoting their own fixed-wireless plans.
In August, Telecommunications Commissioner Tristan Gilbertson sent a warning letter to all players in the market, reminding them that customers being shifted from copper must "be informed about the full range of options available to them".
Vodafone retorted that the provision should apply equally to Chorus' own promotions.
With Spark and Vodafone likely to push fixed-wireless harder as their 5G rollouts expand (and 2degrees shortly joining the 5G party), it's likely the referee's whistle won't be far from Gilbertson's lips over the next few months.