Telco commissioner likely to take digital media role

Four scenarios point to emerging single-regulator strategy

Telecommunications Commissioner Ross Patterson could be invited to take on additional responsibilities for policing the market in newly converged media according to most scenarios canvassed in a discussion paper on the regulations for digital broadcasting released by Ministers Trevor Mallard and David Cunliffe.

Failure to reform regulation appropriately could adversely impact the growth of broadband infrastructure, the report says.

The two-volume document, released late last month, considers threats to a “diverse” digital broadcasting market and four possible scenarios involving regulation to manage these.

Even the lightest-handed scenario considers extending the role of Telecommunications Commissioner to include definition of the boundaries of various media markets, so as to limit market concentration in one company’s hands. A second more strongly regulated scenario would include in the Commissioner’s duties a responsibility of more directly “maintaining market plurality”.

The latter scenario envisages a single authority, comparable with the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) administering the Telecommunications Act and separate media market legislation and regulations.

A third possibility put forward in the report is to scrap the laboriously conceived Telecommunications Act as it now stands and replace it with a unified Act governing all digital media.

A new regulatory body would then monitor and benchmark the operation of public service broadcasting as well as taking over the commissioner’s current responsibilities for administering telecommunications service obligations (TSO) with regard to “pricing, access and plurality”.

The core rationale behind the rethink is that convergence is blurring the distinction between broadcast programmes and “broadcasting-like” digital content traditionally delivered through the internet. This means essentially similar services are currently subjected to different regulatory regimes, and this could distort the market.

Technological developments have also, the report suggests, put more power in the hands of the user to decide what, when and where to watch and listen to, to bypass the traditional originator-distributor-consumer “value chain” and for users to originate their own content.

The report enumerates eight groups of “threats” arising out of the changed market, suggests possible responses to seven of the eight – the exception being “rising cybercrime” — and invites the public to evaluate these responses and suggest others.

The small size of the New Zealand market exacerbates many of the threats and leads to the danger of Kiwis being swamped by overseas digital content to the detriment of producers of local material, the report says.

There are references to “internet safety” and education for “media literacy” as additional responsibilities of a unified regulator and these clearly bear on public protection against online crime.

“Media literacy also has an impact on issues around effective rights management,” says the report, so education would enable individuals or small companies to protect and derive adequate income from their content as well as respecting the rights of others.

As part of the encouragement of local content production, it is suggested that current contestable funding for broadcast content might be extended to producers of content for dissemination through the internet.

Though the current “light-handed” regulatory scheme with several regulatory bodies has its merits, without some consolidation, the report suggests, local content, particularly for minority audiences, is less profitable under this scenario and “the business case for significant investment in broadband structure is marginal.”

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