Iwi want different 4G approach

02:49, Nov 19 2012

Some Maori who attended a hui at which it was decided to reactive their Waitangi Tribunal "digital dividend" " radio spectrum claim are advocating for a different approach to allocating the hundreds of millions of dollars-worth of "4G" 700MHz spectrum.

Instead of auctioning off blocks of the spectrum, they argue it would be best for telcos to build a shared 4G network, with just one set of cellphone towers and antennas.

Maori engineer Toa Greening, who was at last month's hui, made the case for a shared network in a well-crafted submission to the Business, Innovation and Employment Ministry.

The shared approach is one I supported a couple of years ago, but then-Communications Minister Steven Joyce did not bite, making it clear he favoured competition between rival physical networks.

Fair enough, perhaps. The days of meaningful infrastructure-based competition in the mobile market may be gradually drawing to a close as operators all switch to the same 4G technology, LTE.

That might make a shared network more economically efficient, as well as more environmentally friendly and potentially more robust.

But, in Joyce's defence, using spectrum management policy to hoist a shared network on the industry would be a bit avant-garde, especially as any shared network would have to dovetail with operators' existing rival 2G and 3G networks for some years to come.

The choice is between opting for a spectrum allocation policy to support an industry structure that in a few years' time may look a pretty dated, or one that right now looks a bit green about the ears.

It's not necessarily "all or nothing". Sharing of cellphone towers and other infrastructure is already encouraged through "colocation" regulations administered by the Commerce Commission.

It appears inevitable that the relentless pressure on network operators to come up with the capex to deliver more bandwidth at less cost will prompt them to move further in the "right" direction on their own accord, albeit at a slow pace than might be desirable.

Could we do better? Greening makes a pretty convincing argument that we could.

But my money remains on Joyce's successor, Amy Adams, opting for a conventional spectrum auction along very much the same lines as a "straw man" proposal the Economic Development Ministry put forward in August last year.

Though there are difficult points of principle to be negotiated or (more likely) brushed under the carpet, the Maori spectrum claim could well help the Government achieve its hidden agenda in that scenario.

That is to ensure Vodafone, Telecom and less-well-heeled 2degrees each end up with at least the 10MHz of paired spectrum they each need to run a viable 4G network, while helping it get an excusable price for the spectrum at auction. The idea would be to allocate a chunk of 4G spectrum to Maori that they could trade to raise their equity stake in 2degrees.