Spectrum auction offers food for thought

Last week saw the launch of the Government's auction of radio spectrum, assuming the legal cases don't get any further.

Last week saw the launch of the Government's auction of radio spectrum, assuming the legal cases don't get any further.

I've been interested in the auction and the idea of even being able to sell off chunks of air for some time, and I think the two cases pending are both interesting and worth considering.

The first, is the one most shied away from by mainstream media - the challenge under the Treaty of Waitangi.

Perhaps they're simply treading carefully, but I think more attention should be paid to this argument.

It has huge ramifications for the Government and people of New Zealand as a whole. Was the spectrum around when the Treaty was signed? The simple answer is: yes, it was.

Does this mean Maori own the spectrum and shouldn't have to buy it back from the Crown? Quite possibly - and I think we as a nation need to better understand the implications of this, because it goes a long way beyond both telecommunications and my brief as an IT journalist.

But think about the other possibilities that are emerging - like DNA. Who owns the DNA in my bloodstream, bone marrow and brain stem? Is it me? What about the doctors who remove it from my body to perform tests on it - does that mean I've signed away those controlling rights? What about the DNA of an entire family or even an entire people? This needs to be looked at right now because technology isn't going to wait around while we stumble about.

But that's a debate for another time and place - the other challenge to the auction is one I hadn't considered before. Everyone has been intently focused on the 3G leg of the auction, myself included, but what about the 2G side?

There are no limits to ownership there - and Ihug is quite right when it suggests having one or even two companies running 2G spectrum in New Zealand would be a bad thing.

2G isn't going to be obsolete overnight - it's going to be the backbone of any cellular network for some years to come, and any owner of it can take their time developing 3G applications and simply sit back and wait for the right time to go to market.

The auction itself bears looking at as well. Will the company paying the millions of dollars "own" that band of spectrum for the rest of time? Will it have to renew its licence in the near future? What happens if it buys the spectrum but then sits on it for 20 years and doesn't use it?

The answers to all these questions and many more are available at the auction Web site (http://auction.med.govt.nz) and it makes for interesting reading.

Of course, auctions aren't the only way to parcel out spectrum. A number of countries have opted for the "beauty pageant" model, where companies front up with a business plan and the government picks the ones it thinks will serve the country best.

I quite like that idea, if only we could be sure of having a government that knew what telecommunications was all about. One European country has what sounds like a terribly complicated system, where spectrum is allocated on a regional basis for a set period of time, say three years.

Each licencee has no competition internally within that time, but must develop its network to a certain level before the three years is up. If you don't reach that level, you can't compete nationally in the newly opened system, but everyone who has reached that level can.

This is what's called an incentive, and it's something we seem to be lacking in the New Zealand model. The telecommunications inquiry will think about adding in a use-it-or-lose-it clause, but couldn't we take it one step further? I'd like to see us pushing this one along instead of merely coasting.

What do you think?

The auction is set to run for several months, according to the publicity - quite what happens next is literally anyone's guess.

Paul Brislen is a Computerworld journalist. Send email to Paul Brislen. Letters for publication should be sent to Computerworld letters.

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