Now the real waiting begins

The telecommunications inquiry report is finally in and we've all breathed a sigh of relief. Either we were pleased to see the report's findings or, in the case of the incumbent players, we were just glad the waiting was over.

The telecommunications inquiry report is finally in and we’ve all breathed a sigh of relief. Either we were pleased to see the report’s findings or, in the case of the incumbent players, we were just glad the waiting was over.

Sadly, of course, it’s not. Now we know what the Inquiry team has come up with, we have to wait to see what Paul Swain thinks of it. Telecom has already indicated it will be lobbying like it’s never lobbied before to make sure no commissioner is ever appointed.

Swain can expect to have a team of Telecom’s crack lawyer/media spokesfolk camping in his waiting room for the next couple of months. He will go over the report with a fine-tooth comb, take into account the wants and needs of each and every telco in the land and hopefully the views of the user as well. After all that mulling he will then present the report and recommendations to Cabinet. Hopefully that will be just before Christmas.But as they say, wait! There’s more. Then Cabinet has to think about it for a while. Cabinet doesn’t have a clue about telecommunications or IT or the Internet or what high-tech is all about — they have Swain for that kind of thing. It’s kind of a double-edged sword having someone like Swain around; he knows about IT and telecommunications. I think he even cares about it, but you try ringing one of the other ministers with a technology question and see how fast you get referred to his office. These are the people who will be deciding what to do with the report. They’ll think about their careers; they’ll think about the latest opinion polls; they’ll think about their electorates if they have one; and they’ll think about business confidence. And then they’ll decide what to do with our telecommunications environment.Rumour has it that Cabinet is so concerned about the government's image as business-bashing, left-wing, touchy-feely that it will eliminate the commissioner from the final equation, leaving only a hollow shell of the report’s recommendations in place. This would, I believe, be worse than the position we’re in now. A weak telecommunications environment is infinitely worse than the status quo — no regulatory environment at all. Worst of all we would see the decision made not because of ideology or sound reasoning but because of politics, and that’s a terrible thought.If you have any thoughts on this matter, you’d better tell your MP and tell them loudly. If corporates can lobby government, so can end users and we’d be foolish not to. I will be calling on the minister as often as I can and I encourage you to do the same. Voice is better than email — they have a patchy history of responding to the new medium.So far Telecom and Vodafone seem to be getting most of the coverage. It shouldn’t be a surprise that these two are the only real dissenting parties; after all, they already have control of their respective markets and stand to see their dominance erode under any regulatory system. And what about this whole regulation thing — haven’t we just spent the past 15-odd years getting rid of government involvement in business? I think we’ve seen enough stagnation in the New Zealand telco market to make Don Brash’s hair turn white at the thought. Some would have you believe that any regulator is a bad thing. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case; the regulations proposed in this report are actually quite mild compared with many overseas countries. The commissioner would only impose price controls or time constraints in very few cases, and then only as a last resort. Telecom would have you believe that its recent agreement with Clear means there is no need of a commissioner of any sort; that the industry can obviously take care of itself. I tend to think it proves the opposite: Telecom and Clear have spent years bickering about every aspect of their relationship from phone numbers to Internet access and back again. Now, at the last minute, they sign an agreement. It’s only because of government pressure in the form of the inquiry that they’ve reached any kind of truce and it remains to be seen just how fair an agreement it is. All this is far from over.

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