Spectrum as a property right questioned

Telecommunications consultant Jon Brewer raises new ways of allocating spectrum

Telcos have stated their positions, Maori groups have staked a claim, but should radio spectrum made available after the switch to digital TV become a property right?

Telecommunications consultant Jon Brewer writes in a submission to the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment that treating spectrum as a property right has resulted in "massive inefficiencies" of use.

"For a sum of money enough to block smaller competitors, some companies have locked up radio spectrum for years that would have a far greater impact on New Zealand's economy if in use than the price they paid at auction," Brewer writes.

"As a result of locking up the spectrum, these companies have been able to create an artificial scarcity. They have been able to use a limited amount of spectrum and equipment to provide service, while guaranteeing they were the only game in town. Resulting services and pricing, when compared to Australia or other OECD peers, has been poor for New Zealand."

Brewer's submission is in response to a consultation document, Radio Spectrum Five Year Outlook 2012-2016, issued by MBIE. According to the document, New Zealand has 926MHz allocated as private management rights in bands for mobile broadband use. This would increase to 1034 MHz spectrum, following the allocation of 700MHz spectrum.

A spokesperson for ICT Minister Amy Adams says a paper on 700MHz spectrum has gone to Cabinet and allocation is expected to take place next year, following talks between the Crown and Treaty of Waitangi claimants.

The issue of spectrum ownership was a factor in the sale of TelstraClear to Vodafone. Following the sale Telstra has retained blocks in two spectrum bands -- 1800MHz and 2100 MHz. The management rights for these bands expires in March 2021 and there are no "use it or lose it" requirements.

In his submission Brewer references a section in the MBIE report about cognitive radio technologies which were created to take advantage of unused radio spectrum. The report claims that were these technologies in use, it "may require a radical departure from existing methods of spectrum regulation."

"The time for a radical departure is now, and the concept that must be introduced to radio spectrum legislative and management frameworks is that of Primary and Secondary Use," writes Brewer.

A Primary User would have a spectrum licence that allows for the right to transmit on the frequency with no interference. Secondary Users would have the right to transmit on the same frequency as long as it didn't interfere with the Primary User.

"The greatest impact Radio Spectrum Management could have on the economy is by ensuring management frameworks are ready for cognitive radio products," Brewer writes. "Such products will lead to greater, more efficient, lower cost communications, benefitting in innumerable ways."

In August Brewer released a paper that looked at how TV white space technology (TVWS) can be used to enable broadband connectivity in rural areas. He provides three case studies of remote settlements which he says won't be served by the $300 million Rural Broadband Initiative.

He says TVWS is a disruptive technology which can be "technically and commercially effective for providing broadband to areas of extremely low population densities."

"It operates at low power levels, orders of magnitude less than typical cell towers ... it achieves its coverage through the use of idle spectrum that may be licensed to a commercial broadcaster."

Brewer's report, which received funding from InternetNZ, has been welcomed by Rural Women NZ's national president Liz Evans.

"This report suggests that using available television spectrum could offer a low cost, effective broadband alternative for rural areas, and one that, we understand, would not be affected by weather conditions and trees," she says.

"We would encourage our policymakers and telcos to investigate how television white space might be incorporated into our wireless technology to help bridge the digital divide for those who are going to be left out in the cold by the RBI."

Brewer's submission and report is at nztelco.com. Submissions to the Five Year Outlook report closed on October 19 and have not yet been made publicly available.

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