Govt waves big stick to drive broadband agenda

Outgoing head of the Telecommunications Carriers' Forum, Ralph Chivers, says New Zealanders need to decide whether they want improved broadband and, if so, to support infrastructure projects needed to deliver it.

He says the public and the local authorities are in danger not only of looking a gift-horse in the mouth but "shooting the horse, butchering it and then complaining that you don't have a horse any more"

See also: BANANA principle belies the cost of progress

His views, delivered to the Telecommunications Day conference in Wellington this month, come as some predict a fight over open access to "Layer 0" telecommunications assets such as ducts and power poles and the possibility -- read by some media into ICT Minister Steven Joyce's speech to the conference -- that government compulsion will be required to drive network investment forward.

Joyce was cautious, commenting on polarised submissions to government's initial report on the scheme.

"Duct and pole owners, of course, were hesitant at the idea that there might be mandated access to their assets," he said.

"Companies without their own passive infrastructure were, not surprisingly, generally more positive. Both types of companies seemed, nonetheless, to consider that there was scope to improve their access to the land on which such assets were located.

"I am of course aware of the importance of private property rights and I have made no decision on whether government action is appropriate in facilitating access. I do however consider it important that the question be asked. That is what I have done and now your responses will assist the government in coming to an answer."

Infrastructure rollout is a sensitive subject in local government, "but it's one we've got to face up to," Joyce said in answer to questions.

"If we can lower the cost of rollout to all players, then we'll all get along a lot further than we have previously."

Some media saw this as a signal for "a big free-up" with industry commentators such as Victoria University researcher Bronwyn Howell pointing to cell tower co-location regulations as the thin end of the wedge.

Others are more sceptical: "I'm assuming [Joyce is] not serious -- just waving a big stick," says NZ Computer Society CEO Paul Matthews.

Practical services have already been built on the back of local-loop unbundling, new infrastructure is rolling out and number portability, after a long and painful gestation, is growing rapidly; the 200,000th transfer would be clocked up about now, Chivers said at the conference.

Overall, Chivers -- a former schoolteacher -- gives the industry an A-minus for effort, a B-plus for attitude and a B-minus for achievement.

Also at the conference, Nick White, UK-based executive vice-president of the International Telecommunications Users Group, labelled broadband access today's equivalent of the right to vote.

White, who beamed in via teleconference, says there is a strong political drive to develop a society that can use high-speed broadband services universally.

"In order to get inclusion in society it's important that this access is open and equal and that all can participate," he says. "It's almost become the modern suffrage. It's an essential service for education, law, health or simply participating commercially in society."

He expresses particular distaste for differences in regional pricing and regulation; the argument that because several competitors are present in one part of the country, service there does not need regulating, while elsewhere it might.

There has been some progress on lowering rates in Europe through imposed caps but rates are still too high and differ by large factors between member states. In the US the termination rate is "almost zero".

Price elasticity will accommodate lower rates without loss of revenue because of the increased use the change will generate, White says.

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