From the horse’s mouth
Productivity Commission (Australia)
Increasingly it has become increasingly difficult to repair or have repaired manufactured goods made in the last few decades. We then end up with a situation where it is economically preferable to replace them or have them operate at a sub-par level for the rest of their useful lives. This leads to waste associated with broken goods being taken to recycling or landfill.
Lets not forget that end-users may want to modify equipment to suit their changing needs. For example, there will be the desire to upsize the RAM or storage on a computer, games console or set-top box so it can accommodate more data or run more smoothly. Or some devices may be modified for improved useability by users that have limited abilities. There may even be the idea of integrating existing HVAC systems in to smart-home setups.
Some of the limitations include limiting access to spare parts, technical knowledge and special repair tools to repair workshops and technicians approved by the manufacturer. In some cases, some manufacturers have reduced the number of approved repair workshops or technicians so it becomes increasingly inconvenient or expensive to seek repairs yourself. As well, it becomes more difficult for others including yourself to repair these items.
There is an increasing pressure to allow consumers or independent third-party repairers to repair items. This movement, known as the “right-to-repair” movement, has gained traction within the USA and the European Union with both these jurisdictions introducing legislation and regulation that enshrine this right. Even France is taking further action by having a “reparability rating” on certain classes of consumer goods like smartphones, TVs or washing machines so customers can know whether the item can be repaired and how difficult it would be to repair.
Arguments often cited for this include the ability for a device to last a long time thanks to the increased availability of replacement parts and knowledge to repair these devices. Here, it opens up the idea of independent repairers being able to repair these devices or allowing a technically-adept person to perform their own repairs. It includes the ability to see more people employed or doing business in the repair trade along with further sharing of knowledge about repairing equipment of different types including sophisticated equipment.
It could extend to the idea of a rich refurbished-device market so that devices that people need are made more affordable. This could also apply to the availability of devices that are modified for accessibility or to suit certain usage scenarios.
Over the last year, the Australian Productivity Commission has called for action to support right-to-repair by instigating an inquiry in to this topic. They have been soliciting submissions through this inquiry in order to make the best call on right-to-repair laws in this country. But it is easy to see it as being just for consumer goods like smartphones or cars.
Some submissions have expanded the scope of goods covered to those normally supplied to businesses or the public service, with the article citing devices like videosurveillance cameras or equipment to do with car-parking systems thanks to these devices being part of the smart city ideal. Here, they say that these devices are known to outlast the vendors that supply them in the order of years if not decades. It would encompass the issue of a vendor collapsing or being taken over by another larger firm, with this impacting on the supply of parts and technical knowledge for these devices.
Another commonly cited situation for “business-to-business” devices is tractors and agricultural equipment. Here, it is about whether parts or expertise is available for these machines nearer the farms that they are used on including whether that local diesel mechanic in that small town can get the tractor working properly again. This is as they are becoming more complicated to repair thanks to use of computer technology to manage engines or other aspects of the machine’s operation.
They also cited the issue of software especially firmware that allows most of today’s devices to run. There is a call to provide continual software-quality updates to this software for as long as the hardware device is to last or “open up” the hardware to third parties to provide software. An example of this is what has happened with the Linksys WRT-54G Wi-Fi broadband router where there has been the OpenWRT community creating highly-capable firmware for this device.
In this context, there was the issue of using digital-rights management to stop do-it-yourself or independent repair of equipment. Even in this case, it has to be about keeping the software up-to-date for as long as the device or platform lasts and if this can’t be achieved, opening up the device or platform to third parties.
Of course device vendors and their peak bodies are against these ideas due to them losing control of their devices to end-users and independent repairers. An example of this is Interactive Games & Entertainment Association who represent the console-based video-games platforms. Here, they don’t want this to go ahead because they see that games consoles don’t need the same kind of consumer protection as other consumer devices. But it may be that this kind of consumer protection may be about disturbing their business model with the games consoles being sold as loss-leaders with the cost made up in the games the people play on these consoles.
Luckily Australia is starting to see this issue for what it is and could set up “right-to-repair” legislation and regulation. As well, I also see this issue having impact on New Zealand due to that country being seen as the “same” market as Australia and it being easier for both the Australian and New Zealand governments enforcing the same standard of right-of-repair on both sides of the Tasman Sea.