Parties divided on unbundling

The National Party will push for an annual review of New Zealand's telecommunications environment regardless of the government's decision over unbundling.

The National Party will push for an annual review of New Zealand’s telecommunications environment regardless of the government’s decision over unbundling.

National says it supports the Commerce Commission’s recommendation that New Zealand not unbundle the local loop, but telecommunications spokesman John Key says that support relies heavily on Telecom doing the right thing.

“Telecom’s been given the opportunity to come to the party and provide a decent wholesale service, and I think that’s what the rest of the industry wants to see.”

Key says National wants to balance the needs of the business and residential markets against the need for Telecom to make a return on its investments.

“I’m confident Telecom will reconfigure itself over time to offer these services because the risk to Telecom is that it will face greater regulation if it does not.”

Communications Minister Paul Swain (pictured above right) last week refused to make any comment on the unbundling issue during an appearance at IDC’s Directions conference in Auckland. He is expected to make a recommendation to cabinet this month on whether to accept or reject telecommunications commissioner Douglas Webb’s unbundling verdict. Webb, who conducted a detailed review of the issue, last September released a draft report recommending unbundling, only to change his mind in his December final report.

The Greens have long advocated unbundling and spokeswoman Sue Kedgley says that support hasn’t wavered.

“In our view, New Zealanders should not be held back from fully participating in the information age because the dominant player in the market has been slow to keep up with some of the new, fast moving communication technologies,” says Kedgley.

However, the Green Party also has doubts about the health effects of some of those new technologies, so “instead of constantly rolling out new things, we should be making more use of that copper wire, which, as I understand it, is 90% or more underutilised” with only Telecom’s traffic on it.

The Greens would have preferred a completely independent telecomms regulator, “with as [many] teeth as possible”. Ideally Kedgley would have liked to see decisions of the commissioner as final and not subject to change by the minister.

“As soon as you make the commissioner subject to the government’s will, politics enter into it.”

New Zealand First is also keeping a close eye on proceedings, according to spokesman Brent Catchpole. “We’ve been lobbied from all sides constantly over this.”

Catchpole says the party supports the Telecommunications Act as it stands and the process that is being undertaken.

If the government accepts the commissioner’s recommendation not to unbundle the act would be changed by order in council, rather than the full parliamentary process. However, if the government rejects the recommendation, changes would be required to the act itself, following the usual process for passage of new legislation.

“Most parties, I think, would support the bill at the first reading simply to get it into select committee where the public has a right to make submissions.”

United Future spokesman Marc Alexander says the party has not made up its mind on unbundling, but is leaning towards support, on the grounds that it will promote competition.

He suggests it might be possible to do it “gradually”, allowing some services and not others to be put on an unbundled infrastructure at first.

“We’re still working our way through the various options and talking with all the parties.”

He describes the environment of debate over telecomms legislation as expressing “a whole series of vested interests, not just on the part of Telecom”.

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