Is Steven Joyce going to be a spineless jellyfish?

Chris Barton has a splendid article in the NZ Herald today. Splendid for a number of reasons. One because, it is shining light of excellence in the current editorial darkness reigning at NZ Herald and two, because it tells the cold hard truth about the state of the play and history of spineless? Communications ministers. Cardinal Richelieu would do well to read it and take heed.

The time is rapidly approaching when we discover whether Steven Joyce has what it takes. Whether he is a communications minister with mettle or whether he travels the way of so many communication ministers before him – to the realm of the spineless jellyfish.

No point wasting words getting to the crux of the issue. Now for a history lesson, when it is all in one place and with out the spin of politicians it is an indictment on various governments and individuals.

Maurice Williamson went there, championing the ideology of the light-handed regulator, but consigning the country to the slow lane of telecommunications for more than a decade in the process. Paul Swain went there too. Faced with the big decision – whether to open monopoly services to competition – poor Paul didn’t have the bottle. He’ll forever be known as the minister who the dropped the unbundling bundle. He too set the country back another decade in the process.

Then came brave David Cunliffe, the minister who lived up to his name and slew the Goliath, Telecom. It wasn’t a slingshot to the forehead. Cunliffe used the twirling bolas of operational separation around the ankles to fell the giant and curb its rampant monopoly power. Sadly, Cunliffe was weak on the mobile front – where duopoly rather than monopoly rips off consumers.

And that is just when Ministers had the responsibility, since then “Karori Bill” went and took that decision making process and put it in the hands of Telecom and Vodafone the Telecommunications Commission.

[quote]By machinations too tedious to mention, Vodafone conspired, with the help of Bill English, to force the minister, in 2007, to step aside from adjudicating in the arcane arena of mobile termination rates. Basically, these are fictional fees mobile operators pay each other for calls terminating on one another’s network. In truth they shouldn’t exist at all, but such is the power of telecommunications companies, they can make fiction reality and rort the hapless consumer. Which is why New Zealand has one of the most expensive mobile services in the world.

I’m not entirely convinced, had he been given the chance, that Cunliffe would have brought the Vodafone/Telecom duopoly to heel. But in the end the task fell to Trevor Mallard who handled it with all the aplomb of a spineless jellyfish.

I just bet Tiger bursts forth in a rant on Red Alert about this article. The truth hurts Tiger though, he is spineless, especially when he has to won his own shit.

Joyce has two big decisions on his very near horizon which will show us his true colours. The first is whether to regulate mobile termination rates and the second is to decide who to partner with to build our new “open access” fibre network. If you are pro consumer, the answers to both are obvious. Regulate mobile rates and have the power lines companies lay our new fibre. Whatever you do, don’t give Telecom a sniff at the latter.

You betcha Telecom should have now’t to do with the Fibre network. They can’t even run their mobile network.

Regulate, because we’re sick and tired of paying through the nose for our mobile phones. And give the new “ultra fast broadband” job – which involves $1.5 billion of taxpayers’ money – to the lines companies because the telcos, especially Telecom, have all shown they’re not only not interested, they’re not up to the job. Even when it builds a new network, Telecom still manages to make it broken.

Yep. Arguably, moving data is far less taxing or demanding than deploying power to every house.

If anyone has any doubts about this it’s worth reading the Ministry of Economic Development’s statement about this grand scheme. “Private sector companies have decided, on behalf of their shareholders and as a commercial decision, not to invest in a nationwide network of fibre-to-the-home at this point in time.”

Translation: Since the Labour government, in a fit of stupidity, sold our telecommunications network for a $4.25 billion song to private ownership, it has been run down to such a decrepit state that we (the Government) now have to bail it out.

Or as the MED puts it: “The Government understands this, and so wishes to assist and work with the private sector in improving the business case for ultra-fast broadband because of the public benefit to be gained from such a network.”

Lets hope what that really means is: “If we are going to stump up $1.5 billion for a new network (something a sensible Telecom should have been progressively making over the past 15 years instead of taking exorbitant monopoly rents for its shareholders) then we’re sure as hell not giving Telecom a bean.”

So far zero faults with Chris Barton. His article is a succinct view of the parlous state of telecommunications in New Zealand.

Finally a message for Cardinal Richelieu.

So far, you have to say, Joyce has played with an exceedingly straight bat. But it won’t be easy negotiating the quagmire of a split recommendation by Commerce Commissioners on mobile termination rates. Two argue for putting heads in the sand while one voice of reason says enough is enough – Vodafone and Telecom have had more than enough time to sort this out and have, time and again, shown they can’t be trusted.

Joyce will be familiar with the sordid last-minute deal stitched together between new mobile entrant 2degrees and Vodafone last year. While the public isn’t allowed to know about this venality, anyone who cares to can find it online (search under “NZ Cellphone racket”). It shows that Vodafone will move if it has a gun to its head. Joyce will also be familiar with and – two campaigning websites where the public is helping the minister make up his mind.

Go there at once.

What fed-up consumers want minister, is Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. For some of us, it’s so bad, we don’t just want Clint to pull out his .44 Magnum and ask whether the punk feels lucky. With Telecom and Vodafone, we want him to pull the trigger.

And on the Thursday, Chris Barton rested, and he saw it was good, good it was.