On the evening of the 27th of April a message started appearing in Usenet newsgroups provided to customers of Xtra. The message stated:
For some time Xtra has hosted a complimentary Usenet server.
However, the number of people using this service has steadily declined and there are now only a few hundred regular users.
Because of this decline in popularity, we have decided that, from May 3, we will no longer provide the newsgroup service.
If you'd like to continue using newsgroups, there are other services available such as gignews.com, or free services such as MSN Forums and Google Groups.
We like to apologise to the small number of regular users who will be affected by this change.
The Team @ Xtra
The message, which apparently went against all rules of acceptable behaviour for Usenet in being posted to all the newsgroups (54882 at last count hosted by Xtra) caused confusion and anger among Xtra Usenet users.
Initially, it was thought that the message may be a hoax, but many people (I'm still waiting for a response from the three emails I sent over the last 3 days) received a canned response from Xtra confirming the posting :
29/04/2006 11:31 AM
Thank you for your email.
I would like to confirm that Xtra will be no longer continue hosting
Usenet email newsgroups.
If you want to continue using Usenet we recommend that you use a third party newsgroup provider such as giganews.com, alternately you can search online for other providers. Giganews charge for their service but alternative free options could include MSN forums or Google groups.
If you require any more help with this issue please feel free to
Xtra Online Team
Telecom New Zealand Ltd
Xtra Helpdesk 0800 22 55 98
So what is all the fuss about? Newsgroups (Usenet) have been part of the Internet in New Zealand since the Internet first arrived in New Zealand. We are talking about a service that is around 20 years old - my first recorded posting is back on the 4th of December, 1987. There are many thousands of messages posted to the New Zealand groups each month. Effectively Xtra has said, "Even though the service is used quite extensively, we won't support them any more and you will need to rely on another ISP to provide this service."
A service that Xtra has always provided (and now, for marketing spin, is caling "complimentary") is being removed with no adjustment in prices or other services in compensation.
It would be nice to see Xtra explain what services you pay for and what are complimentary. In their own, Chat and Online Discussion Policy newsgroups are just part of the "service" and not tagged as complimentary. Newsgroups have always been part of the service provided by Xtra. As recently as April 22 the Xtra site had detailed instructions on how to use newsgroups. No mention anywhere that is was a complimentary service.
If you read the terms and conditions published by Xtra they mention a 30 day notification period, not seven. Also, notification of changes is meant to be made on the Xtra website. But, what Xtra has done is, under the main conditions of service created separate conditions of service for all the main services. The 30 day notice may only apply to the "Customer Terms" - but I am not a lawyer. If it does apply, then what are the consequences of Xtra breaking a legal contract?
In the end, to stop a service that has been provided by Xtra since its inception with only seven days notice seems just plain bad customer service. But, this is behaviour one expects from a monopolistic organisation.
Now, I will admit that the binary groups where people could post programmes, pictures, movies etc, could generate a lot of traffic. But Xtra stopped carrying those last year. The level of traffic will have significantly dropped as it is now only carrying text messages. What it seems to come down to is an unwillingness to pay for the storage of the articles and the management of the server.
This then raises the question of exactly what Xtra does provide. For many it is seen as a mechanism for Telecom to maintain a monopolistic control on the Internet market in much of New Zealand. One only had to read the discussions that show how discriminatory Telecom is in provisioning broadband services to Xtra compared to other ISPs (a day or so versus two weeks) to realise how bad things are getting and how uncompetitive things are.
Juha Saarinen in the ComputerWorld Friday Fry Up has a story "More for less at Xtra." Juha points out that :
By chipping off the Internet services like this, Xtra is becoming increasingly useless as an ISP. Lets compare Xtra to Google for instance:
Games servers: No
Usenet service: No
Globally accessible email: No
Portal with independent news: No
Free web hosting: No
Free video clip hosting: No
Social networking: No
Free blogs: No
Games servers: No
Usenet service: Yes
Globally accessible email: Yes
Portal with independent news: Yes
Free web hosting: Yes
Free video clip hosting: Yes
Social networking: Yes
Free blogs: Yes
 Customers can read mail through Xtra webmail, but POP3 access is blocked from outside Xtra and SMTP (TCP port 25) is filtered.
As Juha points out, downloading the Google Cheat Sheet shows just what can be available from a provider.
My premise is that Xtra is effectively being used by Telecom as an anti-competitive device against other NZ ISPs. For most users, all it provides now is connectivity and email. Effectively Xtra has become a mechanism for Telecom to extract more revenue for what is barely more than a wholesaled service.
While this monopolistic approach is allowed to continue will we ever see a real improvement in services available to New Zealand users? If we want a knowledge economy, as Bruce Simpson points out, we must move from being consumers of information to producers. You don't do that with 128kbps upload speeds and reductions in service!
For many Xtra newsgroup users, it appears that this announcement is the tipping point for them (well it is for me) to go through the disruption of moving from Telecom/Xtra to another provider for all their phone and data needs.
John Holley is an Auckland-based information services manager and army reserve officer. He has a website here.