Forum: Pessimism over progress marks telco summit

LLU didn't stop BT from putting £10 billion (NZ$26.3 billion) on the table for its 21st Century Network

The eighth annual Telecommunications Summit, held last week in Auckland, had few positive messages for participants or the public. Instead of boasting about existing achievements, conference delegates from telcos and ISPs spoke wistfully of what could have been, if New Zealand had acted sooner and not let the communications policies ball slip through its fingers.

There’s no longer a risk of NZ being an international broadband backwater over the next few decades. Unless a miracle happens, this is assured, judging by the concern over slow regulatory progress expressed at the summit.

Ernie Newman, of lobby group Telecommunications Users Association of New Zealand (TUANZ), made the point that here, unbundling of the copper local loop is now happening concurrently with optical fibre deployment in as much as we haven’t done it yet. Elsewhere, it is sequential — fibre is replacing copper that can no longer supply a bitstream fast enough for customer needs, unbundled or not.

Peter Macaulay, former head of the government’s Digital Strategy, says New Zealand leapfrogged Portugal in the connectivity stakes since 2003; that year, according to Macaulay, “we were sitting so far down the OECD scale we were in danger of sliding off the bottom.” In 2006, New Zealand has moved up exactly one place, whereas another broadband laggard, Australia, has moved up three places.

The British experience as presented by Ofcom’s Dave Steward is illuminating. While every country is different, as Stewart points out, the unbundling debate started in UK in 1984. By the early nineties, the fixed and mobile communications duopoly had ended in Britain. Throughout the nineties, investment gathered pace and accelerated shortly after the new millennium with local loop unbundling (LLU) being voluntarily undertaken by BT.

LLU didn’t stop BT from putting £10 billion (NZ$26.3 billion) on the table for its 21st Century Network, or an Alcatel-supplied Next-Generation Network similar to the one that Telecom said would be with us by now, at least in parts.

While we fiddle and wait for the regulatory mill to churn and Telecom to be brought into compliance, customers are looking for bandwidth to burn. Prasantha Mukherjee of SmartLinx3 spoke of a plentiful open access network developed in conjunction with the councils as a possible solution for the bandwidth drought.

It was clear from the presentations at the summit that ISPs without big, cash-rich telco partners are on a death-march. Their only option is to sell out while the going is good, as Seeby Woodhouse did recently with Orcon.

Managing and regulating an industry with just a small number of large players is of course easier for the government, but it isn’t going to benefit customers. However, as it stands, it looks like the next few telco summits will be attended by representatives from considerably fewer providers than for past meets. Such is progress.

Saarinen is a Computerworld journalist

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