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Must content access rely on regulation?

New Zealand's ICT Minister Amy Adams and a visiting Canadian media expert have clashed on the need for regulation to ensure content availability.
Written by Darren Greenwood, Contributor

New Zealand's ICT Minister Amy Adams and a visiting Canadian media expert have clashed on the need for regulation to ensure content availability.

Professor Dwayne Winseck of Carleton University says Australia's and New Zealand's data caps were helping nip media competition in the bud, by making sure media providers run by telcos were getting special treament. TelstraClear in New Zealand was offering unmetered access to certain websites like Trade Me and Fairfax, Winseck told a major government-organised conference on broadband in Auckland yesterday. In Australia, he also noted Foxtel enjoys similar treatment from Telstra, which part owns Foxtel.

Such discrimination enhanced the dominance of existing providers and threatened the arrival of new online services like internet protocol TV, according to Winseck.

"It [also] threatens the viability of [New Zealand's Ultra-Fast Broadband (UFB) project], not just as an economic project, but one that speaks to the public and personal life in the digital age," he told the Future with High Speed Broadband conference.

Such comments apply to Australia's National Broadband Network, too, he told ZDNet Australia afterwards.

Winseck called for the government to step in, not necessarily with a single media and telco regulator as many in New Zealand had been calling for, but directly.

"If you are going to have one meter, you apply it to all. The government needs to play hardball," he said.

"Government can say what they want. No zero-rated data on Sky, the telco regulator can say so. Basically, [they could follow] the Comcast decision in the USA," he concluded.

However, New Zealand ICT Minister Amy Adams rejected calls for government intervention on this and related issues, saying the regulatory environment in New Zealand had undergone many recent upheavals and the market could provide solutions.

The minister said that the New Zealand Government Commerce Commission, which had organised the broadband conference, had noted "the importance for consumers of premium content — that is broadly speaking, live sport and first-run movies".

Such content would help domestic uptake of UFB, but it was too early to turn to regulation and she would wait to see "how the competitive content market will look in a UFB environment", she said.

"Over the last few years new suppliers of video content have emerged in overseas markets. They have provided over-the-top services in a much more flexible way than traditional subscription and free-to-air broadcasters we are familiar with," she told the conference.

"While the innovative services that have been launched in overseas markets are yet to make a significant impact here, I'm concerned that premature government action could in fact stifle innovation in this space," Adams said.

The minister added she was "equally sceptical" concerning calls for a single media-telecoms regulator, saying she wanted recent "considerable regulatory change" to rest before there is more upheaval.

Current regulations allow the Commerce Commission to gather information about how video content markets function and it could intervene if necessary.

"It will be up to the government to balance the broader interests of consumers and stakeholders in the context of the UFB policy objectives.

"To sum up, there would have to be clear evidence of a significant long-term problem for the government to cut across the market response," she said.

New Zealand Labour ICT and Broadcasting spokesperson Clare Curran said that Adams' stance on regulation was "a slap in the face for Kiwi consumers".

"The new minister's address to the Future Broadband conference in Auckland was the first opportunity she had to set herself apart from her predecessor Steven Joyce and of the influence of the big monopoly players in both markets, Sky and Telecom," Curran said.

"Instead, she ignored pleas from both sectors, commentators inside New Zealand and a growing chorus of international experts, to address the glaring need for a converged approach to regulation.

"Amy Adams is behind the eight-ball. She refuses to acknowledge what is plainly obvious: as more content becomes available online, the telecommunications and broadcasting industries are increasingly merging."

She said that the lack of regulation had allowed Sky TV and TVNZ to enter into a joint venture, stifling opportunities for rival broadcasters and new players wanting to enter the market.

"But the real losers are the New Zealand public, who with little choice on offer may face broadband and broadcast plans which are over-priced."

Suzanne Tindal contributed to this article.

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