Swain commits to public review of Telecomms Act

Communications Minister shares industry frustration - and could revisit unbundling

The government will review the “implementation” aspects of the Telecommunications Act, 2001, communications minister Paul Swain confirmed last week. This may include a monitoring regime with possible penalties for companies which do not meet their obligations in a realistic timeframe.

Telecom’s non-performance on the provision of high-speed unbundled bitstream service to its competitors was one of the topics uppermost in the minds of his Tuanz audience at the “Meet the Minister” event last week.

Swain says, in his judgement, the Act has still not had sufficient time to bed itself in and influence the market to its full potential extent in its present form. A “major review” would therefore be premature.

However, Swain says, there is potential in the some areas to make improvements to better support more timely achievement of the Act’s objectives:

  • Improving the speed of resolution of key terms and conditions for supply of regulated services, including monitoring and enforcement issues.
  • Improving the certainty and speed of processes for adding or altering regulated services.
  • Clarifying aspects of the TSO process.
  • Addressing a number of other implementation issues such as clarifying definitions, interpretations and information disclosure requirements that support World Trade Organisation commitments.

The minister has invited public submissions on these and other aspects that users and the industry might consider relevant.

Tuanz chief Ernie Newman is pleasantly surprised. “I expected a review, but thought it would involve minor change and be conducted mostly behind closed doors. This is much bigger, and more public; I’m encouraged that the minister is seeking public input.”

One contentious point of implementation that Newman immediately homed in on is the planned telecommunications industry forum provided for in the Act, which has become the Telecommunications Carrier Forum – a very different body from that originally hoped for.

The process of shaping the forum was strung out over more than a year and involved, by Newman’s count, 140 meetings (including conference phone calls). In the end “we got worn down” and settled for something less than a truly representative industry body, he says.

Perhaps with the revisiting of the Act’s implementation, something can be done to remedy this, he says.

Swain has also asked officials to re-examine “TSO contestability” — the idea that telcos should be able to bid for a share of the task of providing service to “uneconomic” customers and an appropriate share of subsidy, rather than having a share of its costs allocated to them by the Telecommunications Commissioner, as at present. The results of this exercise will be presented at the end of the year, Swain says.

The question of unbundling the local loop could also be re-examined in the medium term if the current regime does not seem to be working. “Whether we open up the question again will depend on what happens in the near future.”

The unbundled bitstream question naturally came up for debate; Swain says he “shares some of the industry’s frustration” that the retail and wholesale system is not working to its satisfaction.

“However, I do make the point that where access to regulated services is not forthcoming, one of the ways to sort things out is for someone to take the issue to the commissioner.” This is preferable, he says to “a lot of jawboning” among industry personnel.

However, “there are issues around monitoring [of telcos’ adherence to their commitments] where the Act is silent," he says. "There is perhaps a need for a system of deadlines and enforcement to be added, which may involve penalties”.

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