FORUM: A different approach

Does the Maori spectrum claim present an opportunity for a fresh approach to dealing with valuable telco-related resources?

In my neighbourhood we’ve waited a long time for Telecom’s fibre to the node upgrade, but a few weeks ago while out jogging I spotted a shiny new double cabinet sitting unobtrusively on its solid white concrete plinth — and what a lovely sight it was too.

Unfortunately, rather than bring faster connectivity to everyone in my street, my neighbour was disconnected after being a broadband subscriber for five years. He is a Slingshot customer and spent a couple of weeks phoning that ISP and Telecom trying to get an answer - initially he was told it was due to the FTTN rollout. I eventually made enquiries with Chorus and was told that FTTN wasn't due to be switched on in our area for another month.

After he'd been over the house a few times to use our broadband I suggested he try the Telecommunications Disputes Resolution Service (he'd never heard of it) and they were helpful. So whether it was the TDRS getting involved, or a journalist making enquiries, we will never know, but after three weeks his broadband connection was reinstated. I have told him not to change providers because he risks joining the other neighbours in our street who are waiting for broadband, otherwise known as "port waiters" (a terrible fate for a man who works from home).

We still don't know why my neighbour was disconnected but the fact that a customer service representative mentioned FTTN as a reason makes me feel a bit nervous about how the fibre to the home rollout will go, because broadband isn’t a nice-to-have any more, it’s becoming a must-have; it may even be a human right.

According to Gen-i CEO Chris Quin, 50 percent of New Zealand businesses will be connected to fibre by 2014. I think he means large companies with more than 100 staff, rather than the army of sole traders that contribute a large majority of income tax revenue to the government’s coffers. The mechanics, plumbers, software developers, architects and others who work from home or in workshops located outside central business districts will not, I suspect, be among the 50 percent.

Last month the Maori Party released its ICT policy and one of its key planks is “digital hubs to be established in communities and rural marae.”

Antony Royal suggests marae that have high speed broadband connections could become civil defence hubs during emergencies such as the Canterbury earthquakes. It’s an idea worth pursuing because marae are set up to cater for large groups at short notice.

Royal, who as a trustee of Te Haurahi Tika Trust helped write its submission on the allocation of 700MHz spectrum, says that the way to deal with Maori interests on that valuable spectrum band is to allocate the Trust a block of 15MHz (paired) and the three mobile telcos 10MHz (paired) block each.

That would mean if Vodafone, Telecom or 2degrees wanted an additional 5MHz (paired) block they would have negotiate with the Trust.

There will be many who will not agree that Maori have a special right to this spectrum. Others may say the Trust is not the right vehicle to address those rights, and those are legitimate arguments.

But let’s step back for a moment and think about how telecommunications has progressed in this country since the Post Office was sold off. Telecom has become so unpopular it is being split up and there is nothing to stop Telecom Retail from becoming owned by overseas interests. Vodafone, whose aggressive on-net pricing plans have secured it over 65 percent of the Auckland market, has been shovelling millions offshore for years, and while 2degrees is the gutsy upstart, it is majority-owned by American billionaires who could sell up at any time. These companies are entirely right to work for the benefit of their shareholders, but who is working for the benefit of New Zealanders?

If those telcos were forced to work with the Te Haurahi Tiki Trust in order to get access to the extra 5MHz spectrum, how would that alter their decision making? There could be conditions placed on the Trust, for example it might have a “use it or lose it” clause, so that if it didn’t ensure access to the spectrum within a certain timeframe the blocks would re-auctioned.

It is an idea for both Maori and non-Maori to pursue with an open mind. The government had a go at letting the free market rule in telecommunications, so why not view the Maori claim on radio spectrum, which will enable services that could improve connectivity in areas outside the main centres, as an opportunity for a different approach?

This editorial originally appeared in the October 24 print edition of Computerworld. It has been been updated for online publication in the light of events which have occurred since that time.

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