The industry left in limbo

The minister has announced a major change to our telecommunications industry with a view to ensuring certainty for investors.

In her announcement, the minister has made three decisions:

1: Bring forward the TSO review to start immediately;
2: Bring forward the review of the regulation to start immediately;
3: Extend the UBA wholesale review (in effect freezing it until after this review takes place).

TUANZ has always supported an ongoing review of the regulations that bind our industry. Having seen the massive changes in technology and customer use over the past five or six years it would be foolish not to. Our regulation must reflect both the industry and our users’ needs, so ongoing review is essential.

We also support a review of the TSO – that pernicious beast has caused more trouble than it’s worth and it’s high time we implemented a universal service obligation that focuses on end users rather than network builders.

Extending the UBA review means we have a half-house regulatory regime in place until after this new review has been completed and that troubles me.

In December I wrote about the regulatory process and why it’s important to ensure politicians don’t meddle in an ongoing process. Regulatory certainty only comes about via an arm’s length process where investors can be sure the rules of the road are dictated by the regulator and not by the politicians of the day with one eye on the polls.

All this has come about because a rule the government put in place when it last revamped the Telecommunications Act has proved unsavory. Chorus makes its money today from wholesaling copper services, yet by the end of the decade it will have built a fibre network that makes its copper lines surplus to requirements. Chorus (and Telecom before it) knew the rules going in. In exchange for separation, Chorus would win the UFB project and would expect to have the copper regulation set once and for all and left alone. That regulation would include moving from “retail minus” pricing to “cost plus” and that’s exactly what the Commerce Commission has introduced.

The government has chosen in effect to freeze that process and to leave the industry in limbo. We don’t have new pricing for wholesale services and we now face an intensive round of lobbying on our new regulatory process, something which in an ideal world would be as bloodless and clinical as possible but which now will no doubt be rather more exciting than that.