Yes, minister - it's been a long wait for phone freedom

What a long, strange decade it's been. Is it really only seven years since Communications Minister Maurice Williamson first promised to intervene to ensure fair competition in the telecommunications market? And how many times since then has he promised to act, demanded explan-ations, come over all vague and then reiterated his faith in the existing process? We had a quick count of what we've reported over the years.

What a long, strange decade it's been. Is it really only seven years since Communications Minister Maurice Williamson first promised to intervene to ensure fair competition in the telecommunications market?

And how many times since then has he promised to act, demanded explan-ations, come over all vague and then reiterated his faith in the existing process? We had a quick count of what we've reported over the years.

1991

December

Williamson undertakes in a speech to facilitate com-petitive entry into tele-communicat-ions markets and maintain competitive conditions.

1992

August

Williamson wants a "marriage guidance counsellor" from the Ministry of Commerce at interconnection talks. "If Telecom says no, this will force me to look more rigorously at some form of policy statement and firm guidelines under the Commerce Act," says Williamson.

He remains confident the parties will resolve their differences themselves. "If my faith proves to be badly placed we will have to look at something else."

Williamson believes further controversy surrounding number portability can be separated from interconnection issues. He says he does not know who owns the numbering system.

1993

March

Williamson says it might be an acceptable competitive outcome if Telecom made itself so efficient that no competition could match its prices and costs.

July

Williamson proclaims a future of fibre to every home.

August

Williamson says he is convinced New Zealand can become a testbed for advanced technologies as IT and communications amalgamate. He describes progress under deregulation as staggering. "How you do better than the best, I do not know."

He insists there is fair competition in accordance with the Commerce Act. Admitting that all is not "sweetness and light", he maintains the courts and various parties are working toward resolving the outstanding issues and the industry is working toward a self-regulating regime. He says the gov-ernment should still have a role in ensuring roadblocks to competition are removed to allow the market to function.

Williamson says going to the courts has probably ended up saving the country the money it might have spent on a regulator. He insists that the local loop issue could soon become redundant with wireless technologies coming of age.

1995

January

Clear boss Andrew Makin calls for the government to step in and set a regulatory framework. He quotes the 1991 speech by Williamson in which the minister stated the government's policy was to set such a framework but only if it was convinced Telecom and Clear had tried to work it out for themselves.

June

With Telecom and Clear still making no progress on interconnection, Williamson issues an ultimatum, telling both that they have a month to sort the issue out before the government intervenes.

A ministerial spokesman denies the next day that was really what he said. "What the minister meant was that if they hadn't sorted things out in a month, he would look into various ways Clear and Telecom might resolve the issue."

And later: "Telecom and Clear have a very limited time to reach full interconnection. He [Williamson] has officials preparing papers that will be ready in a month. He could move within a month if he had to."

July

A month passes. Nothing happens. Williamson promises August release of a discussion paper on alternatives to the court-based system for resolving disputes over access by competitors to monopoly facilities.

August

After five years and an estimated $50 million in resources, Telecom and Clear finally reach agreement on interconnection. The terms of agreement will be incorporated into a formal contract with a September 28 target date of completion.

September

Target date missed. "It's large and complex," explains Telecom.

1996

February

Williamson rejects a complaint from Voyager about alleged predatory pricing by Telecom in the Internet market. "I don't think that there is a dominant player on the Internet ... And if someone does look like becoming dominant, then we have the Commerce Act there to prevent them from abusing that dominance."

March

The interconnection agreement between Clear and Telecom is finally signed. While Telecom hails the signing — after five years of litigation — as historic, Clear pours cold water on such optimism. "This is not the definitive agreement," says Clear's Andrew Makin.

April

Williamson indicates that a long-delayed review of telecommunications policy could produce a few changes. "It's become a political issue, and I guess that's what we are actually paid for — to take the tough judgement calls.

"I don't think our system is perfect, and, yes, we are doing quite a bit of work in improving it, but that work itself is proving to be enormously difficult."

July

The telecommunications policy review, it is announced, will result in no changes whatsoever. Williamson points out that other ministers, particularly Finance Minister Bill Birch, were involved in the decision and says he wants the process to full competition sped up, in particular, on the number portability issue, and that he is quite prepared to intervene if not satisfied. Government backbencher Max Bradford says: "there are a lot of us sitting further back in the caucus who feel more aggressive about this than [Williamson] does."

August

Williamson tells an audience at TUANZ that the Telecommunications Numbering Group (TNAG) is "making great progress", drawing the day's biggest laugh.

Forrester Research president George Colony dines with Williamson, then, the next morning, tells Computerworld that Williamson has it "totally wrong" and New Zealand must intervene in the telecomms market to break Telecom's hold on the access network and improve bandwidth to homes or risk being "outclassed" by neighbouring economies. "Telecom must have very strong constituencies to be in this position. I guess they're a large employer and I presume they're very politically powerful. But you have to think in the long term, you really do."

Williamson writes to Computerworld saying his own officials "will be closely monitoring developments and continuing to evaluate any potential means of improving on the present regime, including reporting on options for facilitating number portability. Moreover, I indicated that the government would be ‘concerned to see the Baumol-Willig rule being applied in the future'. This represents a significant change."

Williamson says he has demanded an explanation from Telecom after a report, commissioned by the Ministry of Commerce's information technology advisory group (ITAG), confirms what everyone has been saying about ISDN — it costs much more here than in any comparable country. Williamson notes that "there may be some good reasons" for the disparity and describes it as "premature" to consider what action the government might take.

The minister's office tells Computerworld that the reply from Telecom to Williamson's demand was "along the lines that prices are coming down and they expect competition would drive them down further".

1997

March

Williamson tells the TUANZ annual general meeting that Clear has spread "misinformation" about number portability. He delivers another "grow up" message to telcos, likening their behaviour to that of adolescents. "I have been deluged by complaints in recent weeks on numbering and number portability issues, most of which I consider could be quickly resolved if all concerned took a more realistic position. Some of the issues raised have little or no substance and have been accompanied by demands for heavy-handed regulatory intervention to resolve them." He departs from his speech notes to declare that carriers will not receive a sympathetic hearing if they complain of behaviour that their parent companies are engaging in overseas.

August

Another Commerce report finds that, even after recent price cuts, telecommunications lines are on average 50% more expensive in New Zealand than any other country analysed. Williamson says he is "disappointed" and will be writing to Telecom seeking an explanation for the high prices being charged for leased lines.

November

Telecom and Telstra strike an agreement regarded as the most expensive portability charging mechanism in the world. Williamson says "the stage for agreement on number portability has been set for some time and I'm glad we are moving toward a unilateral portability agreement without the need for legislation ... New Zealand has the best operating environment for telecommunication companies in the world."

1998

May

Williamson warns in a letter that he will take action if telcos cannot reach agreement on number portability. A spokesman confirms that there is "no time frame" given in the letter. "We're waiting to see how the pot boils."

The Telecommunications Industry Organisation — representing BellSouth, Clear, Global One, Saturn, Telstra and Compass — claims Williamson had given full support to its plan to place the nation's telephone numbers under independent control. Williamson denies it.

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