Haste over spectrum move wins no backers

By Richard Braddell

A contentious aspect of the Government's decision to go ahead with the 2GHz radio spectrum auction is its haste.

But the auction is timed to straddle an election, a Christmas break and Y2K. In the end, it may turn out to be a case of making haste slowly.

Maori interests feel they have been neglected in the auction process. That could well turn out to be the real stumbling block.

The Maori Council is saying it will seek an injunction to give it time to go back to the Privy Council. It wants the Law Lords to reinforce a 1989 ruling it says requires the Government to negotiate a fair and equitable share of spectrum.

Meanwhile, the Minister of Communications, Maurice Williamson, and belatedly Minister of Maori Affairs, Tau Henare, deny any link between an extra $15 million for Maori language and the rejection of Maori spectrum rights.

Maori interests strongly doubt the ministers' words.

The Maori Council's executive director, Maanu Paul, said yesterday: "What you and I don't know is what is the deal done between Mauri Pacific [Mr Henare's party] and National."

Why should the Government race ahead with the auction knowing that Treaty of Waitangi spectrum issues are unresolved?

The answer, say the cynics, is that National's Maori constituency is small, while its polling indicates votes will come from those who want a firmer stance on treaty claims.

An injunction could even be beneficial to National's election campaign.

But if political expediency is a factor in the spectrum auction, Maori are not alone in worrying about its haste.

The telecommunications industry is particularly interested in the spectrum because the International Telecommunications Union has designated it for third-generation mobile that everyone envisages will support high-speed internet among other exciting possibilities.

For that reason, nobody doubts that the country's two cellular operators, Telecom and Vodafone, will bid.

Clear Communications is among others interested, if only because the spectrum is suited to high bandwidth, point-to-point wireless services as well as mobile. And the auction is certain to draw foreign bidders as well as local.

Yet, while the industry wants the auction, it does not want it quite yet. A meeting at the Ministry of Commerce in Wellington yesterday is believed to have produced a near unanimous recommendation that it be delayed for three months.

Central to concerns is that the auction structure could produce anti-competitive outcomes because there are very few rules and no cap on the amount of spectrum a single party can buy.

It could be possible for a party to buy enough spectrum to squeeze out second or third operators.

As always, fear and greed may be of greater importance than actual need.

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