Independent numbering authority will be slimline, says minister

Any independent telecommunications numbering authority set up at the reuest of the the government will be small and cheap to run - perhaps a retired District Court judge - says Communications Minister Maurice Williamson. That should please telephone companies, given that they will be required to fund it.

Communications Minister Maurice Williamson finally appears to have taken the bit between his teeth after much criticism levelled at him for inaction over telecomms disputes.

He has given the telecommunications industry till November 30 to resolve numbering issues or it may face regulation.

It will also be expected to fund a resolution, which Williamson says should include setting allocation rules and procedures, proper access to arbitration and an independent body to allocate numbers.

Funding, he says, should not be a major issue. "It's really a secretariat." In May, a Computerworld 1000 Survey found major users losing patience with Williamson. One talked about "all talk and no action", and he was described as too hands-off. A majority of respondents wanted an independent body to run the numbering regime. Not one wanted the government to control phone numbers.

"Availability of telecommunications numbers is an essential part of enabling effective competition. Entrants to the market need more certainty of access to numbers so they can provide competitive services," Williamson says.

"Prompt implementation of cost-effective and technically satisfactory number portability arrangements is also required so consumers can retain their phone number when they change their telecommunications supplier."

The three-month deadline comes after a Ministry of Commerce report on developing regulatory options, which Williamson asked to be accelerated.

"I have now received a detailed report which makes some useful recommendations for the future," he says.

He doesn't have a set view on what should constitute an independent authority.

"We may set up some independent numbering allocation authority. It could be a retired District Court judge.

"I want to emphasise that final acceptability of such an option [voluntary independent number administration] would depend on whether it contained principles and procedures that were satisfactory to the government and, in particular, whether it adequately provided for the resolution of number portability."

He says it is wrong under the present system that a competitor should have to go to Telecom and almost expose to them its commercial intentions.

Asked about the timing of the announcement, Williamson says New Zealand is not out of kilter with the rest of the world on the numbering issues, which he describes as complex, and that other countries have had difficulty in resolving them.

"We're behind some countries but ahead of most. If we were [behind], I would have taken action sooner."

Three months is plenty of time for the industry to sort out the issue, he says.

"I got my officials to work out a realistic timeframe — we've been over and over the ground [with the industry] so many times. Some, like Telecom, will say it is too tight a timeframe but my officials think it isn't.

"Like any such steps, we hoped the parties could resolve it themselves. When we threatened to regulate over interconnection [between Clear and Telecom] we had agreement within three weeks."

He says he will have no option but to take regulatory action if the telcos can't agree.

That will take the form of recommendations, made by Williamson, to the Cabinet.

Another important report is in Williamson's hands. It's the task force study into year 2000 issues, likely to be made public in about a week.

"We're getting our responses worked out," Williamson says.

"I had an initial meeting with Prime Minister Jenny Shipley [last Monday]."

He says the report contains 10 recommendations in one block, and two others for possible consideration.

"The 10 in the first block are pretty sound, standard things," he says.

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