A "Māori Spectrum Entity" will receive an ongoing allocation of 20 per cent of future national commercial spectrum allocations, at no cost, under a deal signed at Parliament today.
The agreement also includes funds totalling $75 million for various spectrum-related iwi initiatives.
However, neither provision constitutes a settlement of a Treaty claim on airwaves.
The deal, announced by Communications Minister David Clark and Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson after negotiations with the Māori Spectrum Working Group, appears designed to remove a barrier that had been delaying the auction of 5G spectrum - which will be used by Vodafone, Spark and 2degrees to boost their mobile networks.
The agreement could add another layer of commercial action, in parallel to the auction of 5G spectrum, which is scheduled for later this year - and which could be a potential financial earner for the Government (the 4G auction in 2014 saw the Crown realise $259m as Spark spent a total $149m, Vodafone $66m and 2degrees $44m for spectrum, which was broken into blocks, auctioned individually).
In 2019, when the Māori Working Group was announced, then Communications Minister Kris Faafoi said that if iwi were ultimately allocated free spectrum - as has been confirmed today - that iwi would be able to onsell or lease it to a commercial party, including Spark, Vodafone or 2degrees.
The Government has yet to confirm the finer details of the agreement announced today, including whether allocated spectrum can be onsold as envisaged by Faafoi (funds are also allocated for developing businesses around spectrum, if it is retained). Clark and Jackson say full details will be released "in due course".
Treaty claim not settled
The mobile network operators were allocated a temporary 5G spectrum in 2019 to give the Government breathing space to find what Faafoi called an "enduring solution" to a long-standing Treaty claim on airwaves,
The claim, WAI 2224, was lodged by Graeme Everton in 2009. It built on WAI 776 filed by his late mother Rangiaho Everton two decades ago, which said the Crown did not have property rights over the radio spectrum used by telecommunications providers.
An MBIE memo on the creation of the Working Group included several references to the Treaty claim.
But this afternoon, a spokesman for Clark told the Herald that the deal signed today is not a WAI 2224 settlement.
"This sits outside of any Treaty process. However, it is an enduring agreement. "
There are precedents for special provisions for Māori interests in spectrum auctions.
At the 3G auction in 2001, the Labour government of the day allocated a chunk of spectrum at a low price to Te Huarahi Tika Trust - a pan-iwi group set up to advance Māori interests in 3G spectrum. The trust parlayed its spectrum into a stake in the company now known as 2degrees. Telecommunications pundits say the move ultimately increased market competition to the benefit of all New Zealanders - although 2degrees and its spectrum ultimately fell under the control of American, then Australian owners.
And the then National-led government paved the way for the 4G auction in 2014 by setting up a Māori "ICT development fund", with a budget of $50m, in lieu of spectrum.
While the Government has yet to release full details of the agreement signed today, a statement by Clarke and Jackson says it includes:
• Ongoing allocation of 20 per cent of future national commercial spectrum allocations to the Māori Spectrum Entity, at no cost.
• Ongoing allocation of unused spectrum in some other bands.
• A role for Māori in spectrum policymaking.
• Establishment through legislation of permanent Māori Spectrum Entity to give effect to the agreement.
• Seed funding of $32 million for the first five years operation of the Māori Spectrum Entity.
• Kickstart capital funding of $25 million to allow the Māori Spectrum Entity to invest in a spectrum/digital technology business (subject to completion of a business case); and
• The transfer of the remaining $17.8 million balance of the Ka Hao: Māori Digital Technology fund to the Māori Spectrum Entity.
Māori Spectrum Working Group members include:
• Nga Kaiwhakapūmau i Te Reo represented by Piripi Walker and Andrew Robb
• NZ Māori Council represented by Peter Fraser
• Te Huarahi Tika Trust represented by Daphne Luke
• National Iwi Chairs Forum represented by Haami Piripi
• Māori telecommunications and technology industry representatives Antony Royal (a former 2degrees board member) and Robyn Kamira
Spark CEO Jolie Hodson told the Herald this afternoon her company welcomed the agreement.
"We are pleased to see that Government and Iwi have come to an agreement on spectrum allocation, which recognises Māori interests in radio spectrum and paves the way for the C-band [3.7GHz to 4.2GHz] spectrum auction to proceed in a timely fashion," she said.
"Finalising the national allocation of C-band spectrum is critical to our accelerated rollout of 5G, which will deliver 90 per cent population coverage by the end of 2023 and open up new opportunities for Kiwi businesses to innovate and grow."
Vodafone NZ CEO Jason Paris said, "Spectrum is a critical asset for Aotearoa New Zealand and we are supportive of this positive move. Creating long-term value for Māori and partnering with the Māori business sector is incredibly important for us, and we see this as another step in the right direction.
"We look forward to continuing to work with Government and the Māori Spectrum Working Group on the allocation and application of 5G spectrum as soon as possible."
Telecommunications Forum chief executive Paul Brislen - whose group includes all the major telcos and internet providers, said, "The industry welcomes the Ministers' decision around future spectrum allocation for Māori.
"Previous allocations have been very much conducted on an ad hoc basis, so having certainty for future decisions will make the whole process go more smoothly in the years ahead.
"Māori spectrum interests have been instrumental in introducing competition to the marketplace in the past with the formation of 2degrees, and having certainty around spectrum lots will be key to the next wave of rollouts.
"The industry now awaits the Minister's decision around the 5G spectrum allocation so we can get on with rolling out the latest technology on a wider scale."
2degrees CEO Mark Aue said, "We are delighted to see a formalised approach in place that will provide long-term, sustainable economic benefits for Māori and all of Aotearoa.
"A partnership with Māori enabled 2degrees to enter the market back in 2009, and we look forward to continuing to work with the Māori Spectrum Working Group and the new Māori Spectrum Entity into the future."