Troubled telco VHA has given the strongest signal so far that it intends to be a fixed-line player in the new fibre National Broadband Network reality, noting this afternoon that it was seeking to kick off trials on NBN fibre infrastructure in the second half of 2011.
“Our engagement with NBN Co is continuing — we’re working towards being part of their customer trial in the second half of 2011,” VHA chief executive Nigel Dews told press and analysts this afternoon as part of a financial results briefing teleconference.
Dews noted Vodafone intended to conduct trials in the first release sites which NBN Co is currently constructing in five locations round Australia. His company would have two priorities in the trial, he said — with the first and most important one being a test of the ability to run NBN fibre to VHA mobile base stations to improve their capacity and speeds — as well as reducing backhaul traffic costs.
However, the second priority, Dews said, would be to run actual fixed-line broadband customer trials.
The Federal Opposition has this week emphasised its view that the onset of next-generation 3G and 4G mobile broadband networks being built by VHA, Telstra and Optus posed a competitive threat to the predominantly fixed-line fibre NBN. However, Dews said his company had always viewed the two different types of services as “complementary”.
“Usage just shows you that customers are hungry for both fixed and mobile,” he said. “Views that suggest that the NBN is in competitive with mobile broadbvand are just naive. At the end of the day, we really welcome the rollout.”
Dews also addressed the wave of criticism levelled at his company in the past few months after it suffered a high-profile series of network problems that left many without service. Dews pointed to his company’s announcement earlier this week of large investments in customer service and network infrastructure as evidence that VHA was moving on the issue, and said that after “a difficult few months”, VHA’s efforts were “beginning to take effect”.
The executive admitted VHA had seen higher churn rates over the past few months, as customers left to buy services from other carriers, but said “fortunately we’ve managed to save a good number of those customers”. He wouldn’t disclose the number of customers who had churned away — and noted that some of the churn was also due to the effect of “intense” competition in the market over the past while as Telstra splurged marketing dollars to try to win customers to its Next G network.
“Our start to the year has been a bit shaky, because of the extraordinary activity in January, but we’re seeing good recovery from that now. I’d expect that recovery to continue to strengthen,” Dews said.
VHA hasn’t seen any direct contact from law firm Piper Alderman, which is organising a class action lawsuit against the telco because of its problems — and Dews said he stood by the view that customers frustrated with his company should get in touch directly rather than participating in the class action.
Overall, VHA added some 681,000 customers during the 2010 year, bringing its total customer base to about 7.6 million, 3 million of which are using 3G services. However, the majority of those customers were added in the first half of the 2010 calendar year — with just 122,000 added in the six months to the end of December.
855,000 customers were using 3G mobile broadband services — with 2.1 million using 3G-enabled handsets.
Dews was also bullish on one other matter. When Telstra had its own financial results briefing two weeks ago, its chief executive David Thodey said it had connected some 400,000 iPhones in the six months to 31 December last year.
Dews said his company had connected similar numbers. “We’re really pleased by our performance in that market, and from what we can gather, it looks to me like in the second half we put on similar levels of iPhone connections,” the VHA chief said.