It ages me to admit that I can remember when telephone service was provided by the New Zealand Post Office. I feel like I’m sounding like a granddad when I write that there was a waiting list to get a telephone, and when your number finally came up, sometimes you had to accept a rotary dial phone that was not in your preferred colour.
Change was rapid and profound when Telecom was split from the Post Office as a separate State Owned Enterprise in 1988, as work began on improving the quality and timeliness of service delivery.
In one of the most disastrous acts of sabotage and economic stupidity in this country’s history, Telecom was sold into private hands in 1990. One could certainly make an argument that it would be in the public interest to have a group of private service providers competing for customers by offering services on infrastructure to which they all had equal access. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the service delivery component (such as it was) and the infrastructure were sold lock, stock and barrel to the same interests.
The result was an environment that offered no incentive for investment and innovation, and kept prices high. Well-connected, powerful lobbyists saw off threats of regulation for years, while New Zealand became increasingly isolated in not unbundling the local loop.
Telecom’s former Chief Executive famously admitted that it used confusion as its chief marketing tool.
Yet the Telecom providing us with service now is a very different entity, culturally and structurally. It didn’t necessarily go gently into the light of regulation and competition, but it ended up with no choice. Finally, service provision was separated from network infrastructure with the exception of mobile where there’s a highly competitive market. The network infrastructure is now run by a completely separate company called Chorus, a fact that many journalists outside of tech writing don’t seem yet to have understood. When many who don’t watch the industry hear the name Telecom, they still think of the massive company that ran everything to do with phones.
The quality of service delivery is vastly superior to those bad old days, spoiled only by their dysfunctional marriage with Yahoo! which should have ended in divorce a long time ago.
Often late to market with emerging technologies in the past, Telecom beat some major but smaller competitors to market with ultra-fast broadband and VDSL. It has also beaten 2Degrees Mobile to 4G.
The innovative use of phone boxes as wireless hotspots, and sub-brands like Skinny Mobile and the geek’s dream that is BigPipe Broadband shows they are daring to think differently.
But undoubtedly, Telecom has had a problem. Too many people still associate Telecom with a large, limbering, incompetent, uncaring monolith. It seems their own research has shown that a good number of Kiwis will not trust the Telecom brand no matter what. The name turns some people off so much that they’re simply not willing to give Telecom a go, simply because it’s Telecom. In other words, their brand has become too high a negative for too many people in a highly competitive arena.
It must have been a lively debate internally, but Telecom has chosen to ditch what is probably the most recognised New Zealand brand. Shortly, they’ll be changing their name to Spark.
Brand name changes like this will always cause a massive reactionary wave. If it goes well, in two years, Spark will be tripping off the tongue without people giving it a second thought. If it’s not handled well, it could be seen as the time that a bunch of managers from the CEO down wrote their resignation letters. People will debate whether the name Spark is the correct one, but that’s not my focus. I’m interested in discussing what Spark has to do to succeed, at a time when the company has a chance to take advantage of kiwis giving them a second look.
Not surprisingly given the subject matter of this Blog, there are a couple of accessibility issues to address.
It is a lost opportunity that no telco in New Zealand recognises people with disabilities as a market worth pursuing. I’ve raised this issue with a number of senior executives in the telco sector here with very little positive feedback at all, which I think just reflects how disempowered people with disabilities are in this country.
Companies like AT&T, tMobile and others have departments devoted to providing quality service for people with disabilities. It’s a specialised area and it’s not reasonable to expect every salesperson or call centre operator to be equipped with information about technologies like Talkback, VoiceOver and magnification solutions on smartphones, TTY and relay services, and the accessibility of web-based products and services. Part of the role of departments like this in overseas telcos is to act as an internal evangelist at the product design stage, and ensure that new products and services comply with legal accessibility requirements as well as just doing the decent thing. Part of the role also involves providing information to other staff, while a third role is to liaise with customers who need information. No telco in this country is doing any of this, despite the potential for them to corner an untapped market.
It is time that at least one of the New Zealand telcos gave the disability market appropriate attention, so with a new start on the horizon, why not Spark?
A second issue on the accessibility front relates to Telecom’s new digital TV offering, ShowMeTV. This is potentially brilliant news for accessibility in New Zealand. In terms of accessibility, Sky’s website is hideous, and only my desire to maintain appropriate language prevents me from truly describing it! It’s iOS app is little better. There is no audio description provided by Sky channels, and iSky isn’t accessible.
By and large, Telecom are pretty good at producing accessible websites these days. ShowMeTv has the chance to offer a series of solutions using a web browser, apps and commercially available technologies accessible to all. The opportunity exists for a program guide that is completely accessible, accessible TV on demand, audio description and of course closed captioning.
Using Sky accessibly cannot be done, and on that basis I refuse to pay for it. I do have room in my budget for a solution I can use fully though, and will be watching the progress of ShowMeTV with interest. In the meantime, the only choice I have for accessible TV is my VPN and overseas offerings.
Finally, as is always the case, those of us with a need for accessible technology share the needs of the mainstream. We want Spark to be nimble and innovative. I’m with BigPipe right now because the only time I need to contact an iSP for tech support is when something is wrong with their service or on my line. I’m happy to make that contact by email, and I hate data caps. Bigpipe is brilliant!
On the other hand, I took my cell phone business away from Telecom because their data caps are ridiculously low, and 2Degrees offer me minutes and data that carry over.
Spark is an opportunity to make a second first impression with New Zealanders. I get that, and I understand the logic behind doing it now. But to make it worth the $20 million spend and the inevitable criticism, the name has to be backed up with some really bold offerings. Where’s Visual VoiceMail for my iPhone? Where are the big fat data bundles worthy of a 4G network? How about a unified phone number that uses VOIP so I can use it when on the 4G network, when on Wi-Fi at home, and when at a hotel overseas?
Spark is an opportunity for reconsideration by customers and rebirth by the company. Let’s see if they deliver on the criteria that matter to me – recognition that the disability market is deserving of cultivation and pursuit, and giving all New Zealanders fresh products and services that harness today’s technologies.