Three Maori groups have filed a claim at the Waitangi Tribunal to seek a share of radio spectrum worth more than $100 million that will be released by the government following the closure of analogue television after 2013.
They sought an urgent hearing, saying the fate of the spectrum was to be decided at a Cabinet meeting yesterday.
The "digital dividend" spectrum is expected to be carved into at least two blocks, one suitable for digital television transmissions and another for "4G" cellular and other wireless broadband technologies.
Jim Nicholls, deputy chair of the New Zealand Maori Council, one of the claimants, said Maori were likely to seek free portions of both blocks, but would not say how much.
Successive governments have recognised a Maori claim to spectrum suitable for television broadcasting because of its importance in preserving the Maori language, but have resisted recognising any entitlement to higher-frequency spectrum suitable for mobile phone networks and wireless broadband.
"That is the position the Crown and their advisers are adopting," Mr Nicholls said. "As a matter of principle, if Maori have a right to spectrum then it should be across the whole of the spectrum and not just at the bottom end. It is a taonga [treasure]."
Communications Minister Steven Joyce said radio spectrum did not come up at yesterday's Cabinet meeting. "There are discussions to take place through the Cabinet committee process both before and after Christmas."
Joyce said he was not surprised a claim had been lodged with the Waitangi Tribunal, but was not looking to get into the argument of whether spectrum was taonga. "I am just looking for a practical solution."
He said it was "way too early" to say whether that might involve Maori getting spectrum suitable for 4G networks. "I wouldn't see that part of the discussion happening for a while yet."
The immediate priority was to decide how much spectrum should be allocated to 4G and to decide who needed what for digital television.
The claimants met with Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples on November 17, seeking to circumvent public consultations initiated by the Economic Development Ministry on the digital dividend spectrum and put negotiations on a "more formal" footing.
"What we are seeking is the Crown to halt its process and consult in a meaningful way with its iwi partner," Nicholls said.
Maori could have left Dr Sharples to carry the banner, but feared his voice might not carry the day, he said. "We did indicate to him that [a Waitangi Tribunal claim] was an option we might have to take and neither he nor the Maori Party were opposed to that strategy."
The other claimants are Nga Kaiwhakapumau I Te Reo (the Wellington Maori Language Board) and a group represented by Graeme Everton that made a Waitangi Tribunal claim for 3G spectrum in 1999.
The tribunal upheld that claim, but the-then National government and incoming Labour government both rejected its ruling. Maori trust Te Huarahi Tika Trust was later given $5m and the right to buy a block of 3G spectrum at a 5 percent discount to its market price. Mr Nicholls said that represented "crumbs". The spectrum became one of the founding assets of what is now New Zealand's third mobile network operator, 2degrees.
Rob Spray, chief executive of the Telecommunications Industry Group said it supported government initiatives to settle issues between the Crown and Maori, and the concession that was provided to 3G spectrum.
"Does that mean we support some of the spectrum going to Maori in this case? The government owns that spectrum. What they decide to do with it is their call."