Webb to quit next year

Telco commissioner won't be seeking another term

Telecommunications Commissioner Douglas Webb today announced that he won't seek reappointment when his current five-year term expires in March next year. He was hired in 2002 as New Zealand's first telecommunications commissioner after a stint at the World Bank, as the managing counsel and deputy to the vice president of that organisation's legal department.

A lawyer with over thirty years' experience, Webb's telco commissioner tenure will be remembered for its light-handed approach to regulation of Telecom. In 2003, Webb stunned the industry and observers by reversing the decision in his draft determination to introduce local loop unbundling, in favour of undertakings by Telecom to improve wholesale terms for competing providers.

However, Webb's approach was deemed a failure last year, when it was revealed that Telecom missed its self-imposed target of wholesale customers by a large margin, while piling on residential broadband business through its retail ISP, Xtra.

The then-minister of communications, Paul Swain, wanted to return the recommendation not to unbundle to Webb for reconsideration, but was overruled by the cabinet. Earlier on, Swain had received advice from the Ministry of Economic Development saying the Commissioner should reconsider the decision not to unbundle the local loop.

The regulation introduced after Webb's decision was seen by the industry as being convoluted and confusing. Webb had to issue a statement to explain that Telecom's commercial proxy unbundled bitstream service was not the same as the regulated variant, after providers were led to believe that that was the case. To date no provider has succesfully applied for and implemented the regulated unbundled bitstream service that Webb agreed to instead of unbundling the local loop.

In May, communications minister David Cunliffe introduced a far-reaching regulatory package in response to Telecom not meeting its wholesale customer targets and New Zealand's low OECD broadband uptake rankings. Webb will be on board to implement the new regulation, which includes local loop unbundling.

IDC senior telecommunication analyst Chris Loh says Webb commands broad industry respect despite going against unbundling in 2003. It is hard, Loh adds, for anyone not in Webb or Cunliffe's shoes to imagine the complexity and responsibility that surrounds telco regulation. While Webb was responsible for delaying unbundling, Loh says, he also developed immense experience of the telco sector, and will be hard to replace.

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