Decisions in real-time, please

If there's one thing two recent Commerce Commission rulings have taught me, it's that we really do need a full-time telecommunications commissioner.

If there's one thing two recent Commerce Commission rulings have taught me, it's that we really do need a full-time telecommunications commissioner.

The rulings came back and both had two things in common - Telecom, and the length of time it took to come up with a decision. The Telecom side of things is a given, really. It's the incumbent, it owns the local loop - of course it's going to be involved in a number of issues with the commission.

The length of time is another matter entirely. Both the decision to take Telecom to court over its 0867 numbering scheme and the decision not to press on with the Lloyd DSL complaint took over a year to arrive at. In Internet time, that's almost an entire life cycle for a lot of companies, let alone the technology involved.

I don't blame the commission for that. It's not set up to instantly review telecommunications cases. It doesn't follow the day-to-day machinations of the industry so it can't be expected to act as quickly as we'd like.

It has to commission studies, review the results, and generally mull things over. That takes a while - in the Lloyd case the technical report into the complaint was put together by an Australian company, Gibson Quai.

By the time both Telecom and Lloyd had put forward their arguments, and Gibson Quai had learned all it could about the situation and reported back, and the commission's investigator had read the report and assessed the situation, it was fairly late in the piece.

That the Lloyd Group now has further comment on the decision (and I'm sure Telecom would respond to those comments) hasn't been considered. So it's back to square one.

A commissioner's office must have speed as one of its requirements. Decisions must be made as quickly as possible. A full-time office devoted to following the market and the industry would be able to cut out the need for a report to be commissioned, drafted, debated, finally released and then acted upon.

That should cut a good six or seven months out of the process. No decision should take more than about four or five months, in my opinion. That's not to say things should be rushed, but come on - a year for a decision? Not in this industry. We can't afford to wait around while these decisions are pondered.

While the commission's been thinking about DSL, we've seen Telecom make its JetStream service available from several exchanges around the country. Saturn have signed up with Telstra and announced plans to expand its cable service into Christchurch and Auckland; and we've seen the take-off of wireless connectivity from a number of providers in the main centres.

Of course, at the other end of the spectrum we have rural users who are being shut out of the information age and cannot even get 33.3Kbit/s modem connections. Clearly we need to act, and act promptly, to avoid having New Zealanders left behind in the information age.

The commissioner should also have the last say in any matter - or at least be able to refer it to arbitration rather than through the courts. Our courts are clogged up at the best of times, and having telcos argue it out takes a very long time, as both Clear and Telstra Saturn have discovered in their actions against Telecom.

Don't forget, the Commerce Commission has only now decided to take Telecom to court; it will be months if not years before a final ruling is handed down and even then Telecom is only liable for a $5 million fine if the court finds against it.

Quite what "terms and conditions" any ruling would also impose is anyone's guess, but we can safely say that it is so far in the future as to be irrelevant. As for the $5 million, what's that to a company that made hundreds of millions of dollars in profit last year? The ability to impose realistic fines should also be included in the commissioner's role, I believe.

As a final say on timeliness, the telecommunications inquiry itself should be finished and reported back to government by the end of the year.

Quite when government itself will act on those proposals is pretty much up for grabs. We've waited nearly a year already; it's probably time we got a wriggle on.

Send email to Computerworld journalist Paul Brislen. Letters for publication can be sent to cw_letters@idg.co.nz.

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