Standing up for Maori interests in ICT

Part one of Q and A with Hautaki Trust director Antony Royal

Maori interest in telecommunications has steadily grown since the formation of the Te Huarahi Tika Trust, which was set up to manage a portion of spectrum used for 3G services that was auctioned in 2001.

Antony Royal is a trustee on the Te Huarahi Tika Trust and a director of its commercial arm the Hautaki Trust. He was involved in the formation of the backhaul Taitokerau fibre network in Northland and this year became a member of the TUANZ board. He talks to Sarah Putt about the Trust and the creation of 2degrees.

How did you become involved in representing Maori interests in telecommunications as part of the Te Haurahi Tika Trust and in projects such as Taitokerau network in Northland?

I’ve always had an interest in the ICT sector since I came back to New Zealand. I trained as an electrical engineer at university and spent several years overseas specialising in process control before I came back to New Zealand and retrained in the ICT sector because New Zealand didn’t have any decent manufacturing. I worked for a number of corporate organisations, both government and private organisations but I ended up being disillusioned with that and started spending much more of my time working on Maori issues.

I was appointed some years ago to the Maori spectrum trust, which is an organisation that’s been mandated by national Maori organisations to get Maori to participate in the ICT sector. That’s been interesting, difficult at times, but I think as time has gone past we see this sector has become far more important to the New Zealand economy. And a lot more people are interested in what’s happening, so that’s a great thing.

What is your iwi?

I’m Ngati Raukawa based in Otaki, which is why I spend a lot of time there. Ngati Tamatera from Hauraki and Nga Puhi from the North on my grandmother’s side. My marae is Kikopiri in Ohau, south of Levin.

How would you describe Maori involvement in ICT in the last ten years?

We went through a period of being quite uninterested in the technology in the late 80s, early 90s. Where some Maori didn’t want to participate, didn’t see the relevance. This time we’ve moved into an era in which we see the relevance, see why it’s important, and see the way in which technology can assist us in helping to define out future as Maori. Particularly the young ones, who have moved to take up technology very quickly.

Is one of the challenges for Maori that marae are based in rural areas and so experience poorer connectivity than communities based in the cities?

We did propose last year through the Rural Broadband Initiative process that marae get connected up. People ask ‘what are you going to do with it in marae’ and the problem is we don’t know until we get there. All we want to do is explore and to find out.

Now it may well be that having high speed connectivity to a marae will help define the role of marae in the future.

Marae have had changing roles from early times when they were the centre of the community, when we ended up with the urbanisation, the drift away from the rural areas where many of our people who associate with marae don’t live anywhere near their marae any more. High speed telecommunications could actually help define people’s relationships with marae, to know what’s going on.

I’d also like to see marae being used as the civil defence location in an emergency such as happened in Canterbury this year. If we actually had really good communications on marae, they are the obvious places to have our civil defence emergency being managed. They have commercial kitchens generally, they are kitted out for sleeping, and there are people capable of looking after and caring for people on very short notice. That’s one example of the way in which marae can play a part in the community.

There’s a treaty claim on spectrum, with Maori claiming a right to a portion of it as treaty partners. Can you explain what that means?

There’s been an ongoing discussion for many decades over the rights to access. In the early days it was the ability to access spectrum for radio stations, then it became the fight to get access to a digital television station.

Then in 1999 it was access to 3G spectrum which the government was auctioning off. But underlying all of these fights has been the basic principle that property rights will be created and the government should not assume that it has ownership of those rights to then sell onto others and that it needed to have a conversation with Maori around those rights. The treaty never assigned the Crown the rights.

Many would argue that Maori didn’t know about spectrum in 1840, although that’s not entirely true. But even if you went down that path you could then conversely argue that the Crown didn’t know about spectrum in those days either. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that spectrum was being quantified by people like (Heinrich) Hertz.

The idea that these property rights are being created and sold off were taken to the Waitangi Tribunal, the Waitangi Tribunal found in favour of the claimants and said to the Crown that they needed to talk to Maori about spectrum rights. The Crown at that stage declined to and have maintained that position for some time, however what they did do, which is seen as a kind of a little bit of a softening up was set up the Te Haurahi Tika Trust and allocate $5 million plus the right to purchase spectrum.

Many saw that as a very poor response to the claim at the time and many Maori disagreed with that spectrum trust. Be that as it may the trust has done a very good job with a small amount of money to set up a mobile network (2degrees).

What has it returned to Maori, what has it returned to iwi?

First of all there’s an enterprise that helps New Zealanders and Maori are continuing to make up a bigger and bigger proportion of New Zealand and looking forward in another couple of decades you will see that Maori and Pacific Islanders will be a much bigger proportion of the population.

Of course, but what’s the direct benefit to Maori people – for example has it funded laptops in Kura Kaupapa Maori schools?

The first direct benefit is that many Maori tend to be in lower socio economic groups and the ability for them to have mobile communications and for them to be able to afford to use mobile communication is firstly a benefit.

So you’re saying 2degrees’ pricing plans?

2degrees has reduced the cost of using technology. It’s only through the introduction of 2degrees that we actually got a market that’s as competitive and vibrant as it is now.

The second benefit is that as a result of having an investment in 2degrees we’ve engaged many more Maori in the ICT sector. Maybe not engaged with them directly in terms of jobs but we certainly have far greater numbers of Maori interested in ICT then we ever did ten, 15 years ago.

One might argue that that might have happened anyway and it might well have but our investment in 2degrees has actually been the catalyst for making that happen. Without it we wouldn’t have many of our IT forums, we wouldn’t have had many of our people who are involved in ICT.

Your stake in 2degrees has been diluted. You started at around 20 percent; you’re now hovering around 10 percent. As the majority owner Trilogy International undertakes further capital share raising is it going to be diluted further?

We’ve established our investment in 2degrees, we’re not going to drop below ten percent. The reality is that yes we would have liked to have had a bigger share, but what that would have meant is that that would have meant we would have had to have put more capital into it and many Maori organisations are not ready for that kind of investment. I think that in the future that might change, but up until this point Maori organisations haven’t really been ready for investments of that nature. Typically its farming, forestry, fishing.

Better to be 10 percent of a large pie then 30 percent of a very small pie.

When do you expect a return on that investment?

It will be a few years yet until we see a substantial return, which doesn’t overly worry us because we didn’t go into it to make a quick buck, we didn’t go into it to get a return very quickly. We do expect a return and we’re on track and we like what’s happening to 2degrees and we think they’ve brought some great competition to the market and they’ve built up a loyal customer base and we expect that to grow.

Does that mean you have to put more money in as shareholders to retain that 10 percent?

The amount of money we have to put in is reducing.

Tomorrow Antony Royal discusses the submission from Te Huarahi Tiki Trust on the 700MHz spectrum allocation and Chinese investment in telecommunications.

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