This week the National Party will consider the issue, and is undoubtedly as keen as the rest of us to know what communications minister Paul Swain’s thinking is on the matter.
Normally speaking, Swain would be expected to accept the recommendation of telecommunications commissioner Douglas Webb to not force Telecom to fully open its last-mile network to competitors. But in the past week or so, the government has shown itself ready to bend in whichever direction the wind is blowing.
In relation to unbundling, there’s a distinct movement of air in favour of open slather on the local loop. The odd puff in the opposite direction has come from outfits building their own networks whose investments might be hurt if competitors suddenly have open access to Telecom’s copper.
Some voices, such as that of Richard Naylor, heard in last week’s paper, pooh-pooh unbundling as promising too little, too late, when a massive optical fibre rollout is what’s needed for the country to get the true benefit of broadband internet access. He’s not wrong. Elsewhere in the world, that’s what’s going on (see Dial Tone); but elsewhere in the world, they have the benefit – sometimes it is an advantage – of greater population density.
No New Zealand government is going to embark on such an infrastructural investment. But there are some hopeful signs from the odd utility company (Counties Power-owned Wired Country) and local authority (South Waikato District Council) of willingness to roll up sleeves and start building networks. In Wired Country’s case, it’s a mix of fibre and wireless; in south Waikato, they’re getting wireless. Both are talking internet and voice services.
The economic imperatives, apparently, are different for such organisations. Wired Country told us last year that coming from a utility company background, it takes the long view on return on investment. Factored into its calculations, one presumes, are community benefits, as compared to the cold, hard cash calculations of telcos. The same would be true of the district council. And the same is true of the company written about in the above-mentioned column: it calls itself a utility.
One can only hope that such ventures succeed and multiply. Wired Country is already bringing its services to Auckland City and the King Country. The government’s Project Probe regional broadband rollout, when it finally gets some momentum, should penetrate other parts of the countryside. But a potential Probe spoiler has been identified – and apparently blessed by the Probe-responsible government minister, Trevor Mallard – in the form of Telecom.
The same Telecom that makes a song and dance about the cost of providing connections in out of the way places is cheerfully signing up schools for its School Zone service in Probe regions for which it failed to win the contract. This can only make it harder for the contractors to prosper in those regions, and endanger the spread of broadband to as wide a community as possible.
For policy flip-flops, then, Mallard might consider withdrawing his approval of Telecom’s opportunistic selling methods. He should then prevail upon Swain to defy the telco commissioner and insist on complete local loop unbundling (even if new networks are built, they’re years away, whereas competition needs an instant boost). Let the acrobatics begin.