A funny thing happened on the way to the forum

Why is it that a local telecommunications forum seems to be unable to get off the ground? Meetings have been held between the telco minister, Telecom, TelstraClear, Vodafone and the users association, TUANZ, but still we see little to show for it.

It was set out fairly early on in the piece. The new telecommunications regime would be a two-pronged approach.

First, there would be a commissioner who would arbitrate on matters relating to telecommunications without the need to spend years tied up in the court system. The second part, just as important, was the establishment of an industry forum which would become, as the inquiry’s final report says, “a focus for industry self-regulation”.

It adds: “The Forum should prepare codes of practice for regulated services, for approval by the Commissioner. Other parties (eg user groups) could also be involved in the preparation of codes by the Forum.”

The government’s response to the telecomms inquiry downgraded the forum considerably from an “equal” to the commissioner’s role down to a “nice to have”.

“Industry Forum not mandatory but expected to be established,” says the headline-like response, but by the time the Telecommunications Act was passed it was back in as a player of some note. Schedule two goes on at some length about various access codes and the forum is included as a major part of that process.

So why is it that the forum itself seems to be unable to get off the ground? Meetings have been held between the minister, Telecom, TelstraClear, Vodafone and the users association, TUANZ, but still we see little to show for it. Minister Paul Swain tells me he will be forced to step in shortly and tell them how to set up their forum unless they get something sorted out, and he’s reluctant to do that for obvious reasons: this is an industry forum, a focus for “self-regulation”, and so should probably best be developed by the industry itself.

The forum’s woes, however, shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone who has watched the industry for more than 10 minutes. The various players often have opposing views and external forces are usually needed to get them to agree. Number portability is just one issue that has dragged on and on since the industry was first deregulated back in the early 1990s. Even though the industry was close to a solution late last year, it will hang around for months to come while it waits now for the commissioner to look at it. Can we really expect telco businesses to give away power to a forum made up primarily of their competitors?

The alternative, I fear, may be more than the telcos can bear. Government will step in, either in the guise of the minister or commissioner, and demand more from the industry. That could be as simple as setting up a forum along the lines the government chooses, with voting according to a government-determined plan. At the other end of the scale it could be as severe as simply removing industry input from the telecommunications commission altogether and giving the commissioner the power to demand pretty much what he likes. Either way I can’t see the likes of Telecom going quietly along with it.

I think it would be a shame for the industry players at this point to give away their role in the shaping of our new environment. As Swain says, this is really only the beginning of the process, and if they’re not involved at this point they certainly won’t be pleased with the outcome further down the track. That will only make their jobs harder, because this government certainly can’t back down on its master plan in an election year.

Telecommunications reform is key to so many aspects of the government’s strategy, like e-commerce and broadband, that it can’t be allowed to flounder or be watered down too much.

Brislen is IDGNet’s reporter. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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