The truth will out on UFB: Curran

Part one of Q and A with Labour ICT spokesperson Clare Curran

As ICT and broadcasting spokesperson for Labour, MP Clare Curran has led the charge in Parliament over questions regarding teh Ultra Fast Broadband and Rural Broadband initiatives. In part one of a Q and A interview with Stephen Bell, Curran rates National's performance in the ICT portfolio and considers Labour's response.

What’s your impression of the position we’ve reached with UFB and RBI? What did the government do right and what did it do wrong?

The government wants to go into this election saying it’s delivered on its policy objective, to deliver ultra-fast broadband to 75 percent of New Zealanders within ten years.

If you look behind that, there are a lot of question-marks about whether they’ve done it the right way and in the best interests of wider New Zealand; which is why we argued so strongly against their model and the way they chose to run that model out, changing the Telco Act.

You don’t believe we’ll have true open access?

We started with a plan for 30-something LFCs [local fibre companies] and we’ve ended up with three and one dominant player – and the relationship between the three and that dominant player is yet to play out. We don’t know how Chorus will interact with them. There are still so many unknowns in the contracts and what they actually mean for relationships with those LFCs. If you go and talk to [the LFCs] they don’t know.

Steven Joyce uses Northpower as a shining example – and rightly so, they’ve just grasped the nettle and are going hell for leather to give people access as soon as they can, so they can expand their model out further into rural New Zealand. They’ll end up competing with the RBI – which I think is a good thing.

Chorus, on the other hand, will take its time, because it still has a copper network, so its incentives to make the transition to fibre aren’t as great as they could be.

So how would you have done it?

You’ll have to wait and see what our [Labour Party election] policy is; I can’t be too specific there. But we have argued that right from the beginning we had a good model ready to roll out.

It was regionally-based; it was about providing investment as grant money, as startup money for those projects, and we would have had the fundamentally important open-access mechanisms.

We would have continued in that vein and by now there would have been a lot more fibre rolled out than there is now, after two-and-a-half years.

How can you say confidently that there would have been more fibre under Labour’s plan?

There were dozens of projects poised to get the tick at the end of 2008; they were weeks away from having those contracts signed and that all got put on hold. Some of them are still going but for a lot of them the investment dried up and the whole industry went into a state of paralysis for two years, waiting for Steven Joyce to come up with this brand new flash model. That was negotiated behind closed doors and we all knew Telecom was going to get it in the end – and they did.

There’s a lot more information to come out. The mainstream media made a very paltry attempt to cover the story and there was very little scrutiny put on what I consider to be a very questionable process. Whenever you use taxpayers’ money, there should be a high degree of transparency and accountability, and that hasn’t happened.

You could argue that Telecom stood out as the best to take on the task.

You could; but we won’t know until we see the detail of what was on offer and what the players offered back. Steven Joyce’s answer is: ‘trust us; we know what we’re doing.’

I don’t think there was a great deal of trust in the process by the industry; and you saw a concerted push by the industry towards the end of that process, where they all joined together - except Telecom – and said “this isn’t good enough” and ran quite a powerful campaign. That did have the desired effect; to scuttle the regulatory forbearance period.

Assuming there is a Labour government after November, where would you go from here? Could you retrench, back-pedal; or are you stuck with the status quo?

I’m not going to say too much about that; what we’ve said publicly is that we will review the contracting process and the contracts and reserve the right to repeal part of the legislation.

We haven’t said we necessarily will, although there are [elements] that we have significant concerns about. And we would make available to the public as much [information] as we possibly could around that process.

How would you handle that exploration of needs?

[Joyce has a] narrow focus. He came in to deliver on an objective. He has done what he believed he was there to do. In three years I’ve rarely seen him step outside those parameters and talk in any real sense about his vision of New Zealand using technology and where he sees government fitting into that. As a result there are significant structural issues that still remain. One of the major ones is the skill shortage in New Zealand in ICT.

The lack of skills in the schools is a significant issue and a barrier. Pathways into training and [help with] career choices are seriously lacking. From the beginning the National government made it clear that it was up to the industry to sort that out; that they [government] didn’t really have a role. I have Steven Joyce on record on that.

Then there’s content; I’m sure you want to ask me about that. There’s creative content that‘s broadcast and we have a glaring gap there with the lack of public broadcasting. When I read Steven Joyce in the Computerworld Q&A, saying “I don’t see that convergence is occurring”, I was gobsmacked. The man’s got his head in the sand; I question his competence on that level.

I’ve got an update on the countries in the OECD that have moved into converged regulation across broadcast and telco. You’ve got the UK, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia [adopting such a policy]; there was an announcement yesterday that Canada is moving towards convergence across telecoms and broadcasting. We need to be in that space.

Why?

Because the technology is driving it. The platforms being developed are driving a merger of the two industries and the policy settings are mismatched. In the telecommunications industry you’ve got a regulator and rules around how the competitive market should work; but in the broadcasting sphere you don’t have a regulator and you don’t have rules.

I use the example of the mobile termination rates debate of the last couple of years; where a smaller player is trying to enter the marketplace and has great difficulty because of the activities of the two major players.

It’s important to have an independent watchdog and regulator that can point this out, do a study and make the competitive environment work better for the consumers. In the broadcasting industry there’s no way to do that. And the consumer thinks they’ve got choice but they haven’t.

In order to get access to this [choice] they have to pay a subscription; what we’re getting through free-to-air is not of the same quality; and you have TVNZ putting its content onto the subscriber platform, with no opportunity for anyone to say “hang on a minute, is that fair for the rest of the population that doesn’t have a subscription?” There are serious issues that governments need to pay attention to. I’m gobsmacked that the minister, from a broadcasting background, doesn’t see that.

Tomorrow Clare Curran will discuss Labour's response to the Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Act, open government and how to raise the profile of ICT.

Curran will take part in a debate with ICT Minister Steven Joyce, Green MP Gareth Hughes and ACT representative Peter McCaffrey hosted by InternetNZ on Tuesday October 18.

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