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Flavell: Telecommunications Amendment Bill

Telecommunications Amendment Bill

Te Ururoa Flavell; Member of Parliament for Waiariki

Wednesday 13 December 2006

I was looking up the Maori Incorporations Constitutions Regulations of 1994 the other day – as you do - and I was struck by the change to the 1969 regulations – clause 126 to be precise, which permits a tele-conference of committees of management.

The regulations described it as, and I quote:

"The contemporaneous linking together by telephone or other means of instantaneous audio (or audio and visual) communication" of a quorum of the committee”.

Today, we are also debating new regulatory provisions and indeed enhancements to the regulatory process. The Bill aims to address issues to achieve the efficient and effective regulation of the tele-communications sector.

But there are some key differences in time between 2006 and 1994 – and indeed 1969 – which this Bill represents.

As I said at the start, we are now immersed in a rapidly evolving tele-communications market.

Competition introduces new tensions to the industry so that providers are each vying to present the best cost options for fixed line telephone services, for broadband, for mobile, for the core network.

We are watching a dynamic market develop, which has the potential to provide increased capacity to areas, through installing high capacity transmission systems; through the laying of fibre optic cable; and this is all great.

Whatever package is being put forward, the improvements to major fixed and mobile investment projects; the capacity of wireless broadband coverage; the growth of wireless technologies, has to be good for New Zealand; even if most New Zealanders seem to just worry about losing their mobile.

And increasingly, that’s more and more New Zealanders. The Census results last week reported that 74.2% of households in New Zealand have access to a cell-phone; for young New Zealanders, it’s even higher with more than 85% stuck to their cell.

We’re really pleased that this Bill builds on this emerging momentum, and sends a very strong policy signal to the two mega-providers, Telecom and Vodafone, that they are going to be subject to a greater degree of government regulation.

And in this regard, there has been a failure of successive governments to actually step up to the mark. A mass of light handed regulation, has resulted in some fairly dramatic problems. Problems which are evident in results such as the fact we boast the highest mobile rates in the OECD.

Well boast is hardly the word I use when I am presented with my daughters’ mobile accounts demonstrating their prolific and accomplished use of the mobile technology.

Still we’re moving on….and moving on is something that this Bill enables New Zealand to do.

The amendments in the Bill seek to both improve the performance of the tele-communication market, as well as delivering long-term benefits to the end users.

It helps to promote competition.

As part of this focus on transparency and access for competitors, and in addition to the accounting separation regime proposed in the original Bill, I see that the Select Committee recommended the introduction of an operational separation regime to promote both competition and efficiency.

The Maori Party is happy to support this change and the other amendments put forward by the Finance and Expenditure Committee.

What is disappointing, however, is that the necessary amendments to allow Maori interests to enter the mobile market were not included in the report.

The critical issue for tangata whenua interests, is around Maori spectrum interests. As I see it, the regulatory focus dominating the Bill is on fixed line rather than mobile. As I understand it, Madam Speaker, fixed line communications costs in Aotearoa (including ADSL broadband) are much higher than in most other OECD countries; and it is artificially kept that way.

We know that where there is competition for fixed line costs, customers will achieve lower prices by at least $10 per month – and we support that.

But the costs for mobile – for both new industry players and customers alike – are also kept artificially high, resulting in the highest mobile rates in the OECD as I noted earlier. I note that a number of submissions to the select committee pointed out that mobile is not a separate issue here.

But the key issue for Maori is that Maori spectrum interests, Hautaki – Econet – are in mobile. Until the mobile issue is sorted, Maori are unable to access the telecommunications industry – and consequently unable to access the three billion dollar mobile market.

The focus on mobile is no random decision.

Maori consumers are jumping right over a generation of technology; by leap-frogging, if you like, the copper wire network and going straight to the less capital intensive wireless technology, including mobile phones.

Any one who regularly hangs out with our rangatahi will know that most young Maori are relying on mobile phones, mostly pre-pay, for their communication needs. That is the way of the future.

Young people jump from provider to provider, depending on which has the best offer this month, which is as it should be.

Indeed, an example in the health sector demonstrates the impact of mobile technology not just as a means of communication but as a site for a new public health initiative.

Madam Speaker, a study reported in the June 2005 New Zealand Medical Journal, concluded that a mobile phone-based smoking cessation programme was extremely successful in recruiting young Maori. The programme used regular, personalised text messages to provide smoking cessation advice, support and distraction – both in English and te reo Maori – and sourced in Maori traditions. And importantly, text messaging was free for one month.

The messages were brief, bold and to the point – flashing concepts such as change, courage, challenge, action, goal, strength from one phone to another.

I’m told it was a very successful idea – and the high Maori participation in the trial demonstrates how acceptable it is to our young.

Today, and every day, over a million text messages are sent in New Zealand.

The Maori Party cannot therefore let the opportunity provided by this Bill to pass, without noting the importance of addressing the mobile market concerns; and in doing so, reminding the House that doing so will allow Maori interests to enter the market.

The Bill does not deal with the fundamental obstacle that Maori still have to buy their way into the telecommunications industry, instead of being there as of right, as the Waitangi Tribunal recommended.

The Waitangi Tribunal, in their report on the radio spectrum, found that Māori do have an interest in the management rights that go with the radio spectrum and that the two partners to the Treaty should have discussions about them.

And yet, characteristically, the Crown simply proceeded with legislation to give itself 100% control over these management rights.

So we are, again, in the situation of making the best of a bad deal for Maori.

Madam Speaker, one recommendation that has been put forward to allow Maori to enter the mobile market has been to delete the category of ‘Specified services’ from the Act, and move the services listed there into the ‘Designated Services’ category.

At the committee stage of the Bill we will be introducing amendments which we hope will go some way towards this.

We will be proposing amendments to delete the idea of the ‘specified services’ from the Act and moving it into the ‘Designated Services’ category.

Specified services are services where the Telecommunications Commissioner can regulate everything, except price.

Designated Services are services where the Telecommunications Commissioner can regulate everything, including price.

As we noted at the first reading of this Bill, regulation of everything except price isn’t regulation at all.

Madam Speaker, New Zealand’s digital future relies on a cost effective, efficient and competitive tele-communications infrastructure.

The Maori Party will support any initiative to ensure that the New Zealand consumer is being delivered a world-class telecommunications service at the lowest cost and highest quality that a truly competitive market could bring.

The Telecommunications sector has always been one that directly affects the consumer and yet is frequently perceived by most people as big companies profiteering at the hands of the small consumer.

Our support for the Bill is therefore based on our motivation of championing the consumers, by indicating a willingness to regulate companies if charges continue to increase unfairly or competition is hampered.

We are, however, committed to ensuring that the impact of mobile technology, the way in which it has revolutionised our business and social interactions, must be investigated if we are to truly achieve progress.


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