The Internet Society (Isocnz) has come away from its meeting with Sir William Birch "deeply concerned" over the future of the Kiwi Share.
Isocnz representatives met last week with the minister - who is the official holder of the Kiwi Share - as part of a process sparked by Telecom's unexpected announcement that it would begin charging for local Internet calls unless they were made to new 0867 numbers.
In meetings with the society, Telecom expressed the view that the Kiwi Share, which commits Telecom to free local calling, does not apply to data calls. This stance has outraged most of the society's members, 80% of whom indicated in an online poll that they considered data calls to be part of the normal use of a telephone line.
"We gained the impression that the government is sympathetic to Telecom's position that accessing the Internet from a home telephone is not covered by the free calling guarantee under Kiwi Share," says Isocnz chairman Jim Higgins.
"Isocnz is concerned that if this is accepted, the next argument will be that Telecom does not have the resources to improve the infrastructure without introducing a two tier network - a lower priority free network and a higher priority pay per call network," says Higgins.
Higgins says that although Sir William indicated that the government has no intention of dismantling the KiwiShare agreement "his clear position was that the free local calling guarantee distorted the market.
"The Minister was at some pains to assure us that the government had no intention of abandoning the Kiwi Share agreement at the moment, and that our meeting was one of many they were holding to seek input into the demands for a clear ruling on the status of residential data calls under Kiwi Share", said executive director Sue Leader.
"We asked the Minster for three things should he choose to rule against data calls being part of Kiwi Share - a guarantee that the same two tiered system will not be applied to the voice network, a guarantee that the new 0867 access will remain free, and an assurance that Telecom will not again use it's near monopoly position to make unilateral decisions which have significant impact upon broad sectors of the community," she says.
"Much of the ill-feeling caused by introduction of the 0867 numbers could have been avoided had Telecom taken the time to consult with the industry and other stakeholders. In some areas there could have been constructive improvements suggested, allowing a co-operative approach to the introduction of 0867 - a development which is not without some positive aspects," she says.
Higgins says the society provided the minister with its own resarch results, "including survey responses which are indicative of widespread use of the residential telephone system for data calls prior to the signing of the Kiwi Share agreement in September of 1990. Clearly, no-one could have predicted the level of participation on the Internet by home users, but our findings establish that Telecom cannot justifiably claim that data calls from home telephones were not part of 'ordinary telephone services'."