The government and the big corporation

For the better part of a decade, we watched as one
government after another chose to back the needs of Telecom over and above the
needs of the broader industry or the voters of New Zealand.

Time and again we heard from Maurice Williamson, minister of
communications for most of the 1990s, that if Telecom continued to step out of
line he would be forced to act. In the end the voters acted and a new era of
regulation began.

I often wondered why a political animal like Williamson
would get so far off side with his voting constituents. Why he couldn’t see the
constant growl of angry customers and a brow-beaten industry. Williamson isn’t
stupid – he’s played the parliamentary game for a very long time and knows that
ultimately the voters will conduct his performance review and if he wants to
retain power, that’s all he should be concerned with.

He was also one of only a handful of MPs to have a
smartphone (a BlackBerry if memory serves) and one of the few who would answer
emails. I remember one outraged journalist at the time being told he couldn’t
be added to the press release email list because the government wasn’t made of
money. These days it’s getting the buggers to stop adding us to the lists
that’s uppermost in mind.

Reg Hammond, over at InternetNZ, has an interesting take on
the matter. He suggests that for the big decisions Telecom sidestepped the
minister and went straight to the PM and that something similar may well have
happened with the furore over Chorus’s wholesale price determination.

Chorus denies this, as does the current minister of
communications, Amy Adams, but on the day the Commerce Commission announced its
draft determination the first responder from the government was indeed the
Prime Minister, who suggested that the Commission could make all the
recommendations it liked and that it was up to the government to decide whether
to go with those recommendations or not.

Sorry, but that’s not how the regulatory regime works – the
Commission gets to decide the price point because that’s the only way to keep
governments at arm’s length.

You need to keep governments out of such regulatory matters
because governments are typically compromised – they are large-scale investors,
they are large-scale customers and they are the policy makers. To include
‘regulator’ in that line-up is to court disaster as we saw during the 1990s in
both New Zealand and Australia.

The regulatory regime set up in 2001 was extremely light
handed and it failed to deliver results for quite some time. Spectacularly, it
saw New Zealand receive the dubious honour of being the only country apart from
Mexico to reject unbundling of the local loop. Mexico, let us not forget, is
home to the richest man in the world – Carlos Slim – who made his money out of
telecommunications. Currently Slim controls 70% of the mobile market in Mexico
and 80% of the fixed line market and the Mexican government is hoping to
introduce some kind of regulation that will reduce his control of what they
have belated realised is the backbone of the nation’s infrastructure.

If we had one provider with that level of control you’d hope
it would incur the wrath of the regulator because one player at that level is
tantamount to disaster for the users and for the country as a whole. Australia
saw Telstra rise to that level and beyond in the 1990s but because the Aussie
government retained ownership long after it should have divested its
shareholding, the regulator was unable to break Telstra’s stranglehold on the
infrastructure. The reign of CEO Sol Trujillo is best remembered for his hiring
of a team of former colleagues to produce a strategy for the company which was
paid for by Telstra and which ensured he received his bonus for delivering said
strategy on time. Oddly, it looked remarkably like the strategy of his
predecessor and after four years of declining revenue (Wikipedia claims he
underperformed the Aussie stock market by 20% costing the company A$25bn) he
left with a grand payout as only telco bosses can receive.

Today the Australian market is a mess, with Telstra
dominating both fixed and mobile sectors, no strong second-place competitor in
sight and a government unable to achieve its potential even with a promised
A$42bn spend on fibre.

If we look at the New Zealand market similar competition
alarm bells should be ringing. We have two companies that don’t just dominate
the market, they ARE the market. Telecom and Vodafone account for 90% market
share of the mobile revenue and a similar number in the fixed line space. At any
level of the market, whether it be local calling, toll calling, mobile data,
backhaul, international connectivity or TXT messaging, in terms of revenue we
see two names repeated over and again.

Yes, we have 2Degrees winning customers in the mobile space.
Yes, we have CallPlus and Orcon and others fighting the good fight in the fixed
line space. But when it comes to revenue we’re in single digits for market
share for everyone other than Telecom and Vodafone.

This isn’t a situation the market can sustain or which the
government can ignore. The question is, how will the government handle the
responsibility of getting us out of this situation? Sidelining the regulator is
not a good start.

Next week the Commerce Commission will hold its conference
to discuss the issue of Chorus’s wholesale pricing. TUANZ will be attending and
I’ll report back in next week’s newsletter.