In 1996 New Zealand signed the WTO's agreement on telecommunications. In the various meetings on trade and services since then, there's a lot of talk about unbundling the local loop. Various countries exhort it as far back as 1990.
So, perhaps a decade of discussion and dithering later, we still haven't done so.
It's a little hard to tell from the document-heavy WTO website, but assuming that, yes, it does say we need to unbundle and, yes, we did mean to sign it and, yes, we do intend holding other countries to it so we'd better do it ourselves, shouldn't it be done by now?
I can certainly forgive the first four years. National had no interest in disturbing Telecom's share price. It took a change in government, a new communications minister and a review of the market before we got any movement on the matter.
So the Telecommunications Act was introduced. With it came the creation of the office of the telecomms commissioner. The commissioner has determined there's no point to unbundling and, unless someone comes up with some compelling -- and fresh -- counter argument, the government is going to nod wisely and do just what he's recommended and possibly review the situation in a couple of years' time.
Ah, but the Americans have also said unbundling is a prerequisite to any free trade agreement New Zealand wants to sign with the US. Maybe that's the stick the government needs to make it see sense?
A quick recap of the past four years might make things clearer. Firstly, the regulatory environment.
Four years ago we introduced the new regime. We've had countless hours, if not weeks, of discussion on unbundling, number portability, interconnection, wholesale pricing, the Kiwi Share and so on. The commissioner has ruled on many an issue and not once has the price to the business or residential end user changed. Anyone out there getting the same service for less four years on? Didn't think so.
What about the technology? Four years ago Clear was telling us that the LMDS standard was the wireless equivalent of copper and would revolutionise the industry.
Walker Wireless was messing about with something similar and there was hope that data transfer over power lines would one day be available. Networks like BCL and United Networks (now Tangent) were a figment of someone's imagination, yet to be uncorked and allowed out to play.
Today we have moved on from LMDS to any number of fixed and portable wireless solutions, cellular technology is edging closer to 3G, albeit slowly, and
Wellington-central aside, fibre is something you get in your diet, if you're looking after yourself. Anyone using a new technology and managing to completely replace the old? Well, there are a few of you, which is good to see, but for the most part it's the same copper technology we used then.
So what's changed? Everything. New technology, new regulatory environment, new businesses emerging. Yet somehow at the coalface, nothing has changed at all. Isn't that the true test of the competitive environment? What has it delivered to the end user? So far, we're still waiting.