They’ve both had the job before and one of them will again be Minister of Communications and IT after the election, but each has a different vision for the industry and of the best way forward.
The differences between Maurice Williamson and David Cunliffe aren’t as pronounced as you would expect as we go into the election. In fact, they agree on far more than they disagree about.
Both men view IT and communications as vitally important components of not only New Zealand’s economy, but also of our culture and our national identity.
How they would implement that vision is a major point of difference, however.
Cunliffe’s plan revolves around the Digital Strategy with its three legs: content; confidence; and connectivity. If re-elected, Labour plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars delivering access for schools and community centres, a network of municipal-based fibre loops (MUSH networks), an advanced gigabit network for research and education purposes, and numerous other projects aimed at boosting New Zealand’s place in the IT world.
“That’s the carrot if you like — but we also carry the big stick of regulation should we need it,” Cunliffe says.
Cunliffe’s view is “as much market competition as possible with as much regulation as needed” and he plans to increase the powers available to the Telecommunications Commissioner to speed up the regulatory process. Nothing is considered beyond the scope of the Commissioner’s brief, except perhaps the old chestnut of free local calling.
“We won’t be touching that at all, although the way the Telecommunications Share is funded will be looked at more closely,” he says.
Cunliffe says the issue of contestability will be addressed as the idea that a company like Vodafone should be penalised for building its own network runs contrary to Labour’s view that intermodal competition is needed to increase New Zealand’s broadband uptake.
The unbundling of Telecom’s network is also still on the cards, particularly if Telecom fails to meet its goal of 30% of its broadband customer base being delivered by wholesale partners.
Cunliffe agrees that 30% is a very low target. In Australia, Telstra reports that roughly 60% of its broadband customers are provided for by wholesale or unbundling — and warns that Telecom must do more to deliver service.
“The business of business is business and it’s up to the government to make sure business sees the need for the public good as well.”
Cunliffe says he is not pleased with Telecom’s approach to regulation, particularly with the decision to reduce upload speeds to the regulated service maximum of 128Kbit/s.
“I want to make it clear, that’s the regulated service. There’s nothing to stop Telecom offering faster upload speeds as a commercial service and I would view 128Kbit/s as a bare minimum.”
Williamson’s view on the matter is somewhat more complicated. After taking part in the InternetNZ online debate about the matter, Williamson’s views were then contradicted by his party’s newly released telecommunications policy.
Williamson says his view is “as much competition as possible, with as little regulation as needed”. While Williamson was minister during the 1990s he adhered to that policy to the exclusion of all else — despite repeatedly threatening to regulate Telecom he never did.
However, Williamson says there was one driving force behind that decision.
“When I took over as minister there weren’t any ISPs. The outgoing [Labour] government had just sold the whole thing lock, stock and barrel and the Crown Law Office advised me that any move to limit Telecom would be seen as a breach of property rights.”
That argument no longer has any weight, says Williamson, and he would tackle Telecom far more aggressively, particularly with regard to limits placed on broadband users over new technology like the VoIP phenomenon, Skype.
“It’s a bit like the Post Office telling you what you can and can’t write in your letters. I wouldn’t wait for a regulator on that one, I’d do something at once.”
However, National’s official policy appears to say otherwise.
The entire policy is stated in three paragraphs, in a total of 84 words, and says the cornerstone of any communications regulatory regime is “good, enforceable, generic competition law” and that “it is important that property rights are respected”.
National would also allow recommendations made by the Telecommunications Commissioner to be appealed through the courts. Currently, recommendations made by the Commissioner can either be rejected by the government or appealed only on points of law.
The decision to only allow legal challenges on points of law was a deliberate one made by former Minister of Communications Paul Swain to avoid the problem of an incumbent appealing every decision.
The Australian regulator’s decision on allowing competitive access to Telstra’s network took more than six years to effect, with delays and legal challenges every step of the way. Swain said at the time of the Act’s introduction that he wanted to avoid a similiar situation.
National would also install a Minister of Infrastructure, who would oversee “vital infrastructure development”. National says that would include taking a proactive role in areas like “transport, energy, communications, building issues, environment, railways and airways”. However, it is unclear whether this would have any impact on communications or IT portfolios.