It’s a busy time for the minister. There is the new telecoms act, the 5G networks and the Rugby World Cup on his to-do list. But Kris Faafoi’s biggest focus is on ensuring everyone benefits from the new telecoms technologies, he tells Bill Bennett

Kris Faafoi was appointed Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media in early September. By the end of November, he had shepherded the Telecommunications (New Regulatory Framework) Amendment Act through Parliament.

It was a busy start, yet, he says, it doesn’t signal the end of Government plans for the portfolio. For Faafoi, the most immediate and demanding challenge now is the timely roll-out of the 5G mobile phone networks. There is also the question of closing the digital divide and of reaping the economic benefits of both the fibre and 5G networks.

But, first, he has to nurse the Act through its incubation period. Faafoi says: “In a legislation sense the regulation is done. That’s great because it gives some certainty for the telecommunications sector. Now we have to make it work.

“Recently we had Telecommunications Commissioner Stephen Gale in here talking about how the Commerce Commission is going to ready themselves for the deadline. We figured out the finer detail of implementing the legislation.”

The Telecommunications Bill is a large piece of work that was started under the previous Government. It, in effect, lays out how the industry will work in the fibre era. With the first stage of the government-sponsored UFB programme due to finish later this year and the second stage due to complete in another two years, we now need new rules and regulations to deal with a transformed market.

Faafoi says: “It’s all new territory. There are lots of components to deal with. From the consumer perspective, there is the retail service quality code and the 111 system. If you look at the legislation from the telecommunications sector end, there’s plenty of detail that they would still like to know. It will take time to get to the point where we’re happy with the settings. The Commerce Commission will then fine-tune its approach and methodologies.”

The minister draws parallels between the telecommunications and energy sectors. He says there was a long and complex process to go through with the energy sector. “Hopefully, we’ve learnt some lessons from that process, but we expect to have some complex conversations until everyone is happy.”

“There is a clear link between making sure all New Zealanders are able to watch the Rugby World Cup and the more serious matter of seeing everyone can access the telecommunications network”

The pressure began early

Faafoi’s seat was barely warm before the industry pressure to get moving on 5G started. He says: “In the very first week I got the portfolio, I went and engaged with all the RSPs [Retail Service Providers]. I wanted to get an idea of what was important to them. Spark gave us a clear message. Simon [Moutter, the Spark managing director] isn’t afraid of saying publicly what he wants.”

Moutter wants to have a Spark 5G network in place in time for the 2021 America’s Cup in Auckland. Because of the run up that means by late 2020, less than 18 months from now. The other mobile network operators are in less of a rush.

Faafoi has a measured approach. He says: “We heard Simon, but we also listened to others. One thing is the public conversation about what 5G is hasn’t been had yet, and the technology isn’t here yet.

“As well as speed, we’ve also got to make sure we do it properly. For us, it’s about balancing the needs of the sector. We’ve done this before with 3G and 4G. There are other parts of the puzzle that we have to get right.”

While he acknowledges all the aspirations of the sector, for him the emphasis is on getting things right so that New Zealand can unlock all the consumer and economic potential of the technology.

He says: “While some in the sector want to get a product out there fast, we want to get the process right in terms of spectrum allocation and what we need to do in terms of our treaty obligations. There’s also an educational job. That’s a piece of work for the sector to do.”

He says there are still outstanding claims regarding spectrum. “We’re at the stage of looking at what our options are to meet them.”

Faafoi doesn’t think this will slow down the 5G process. “We can have conversations concurrently with iwi while talking to the telcos about their build timetables and their aspirations for their roll out. If we are diligent about how we do it, all those conversations can happen concurrently.”

There are politics involved. He says it is important to have a clear focus on what the Government can offer iwi from the start of negotiations. At the same time, he says, “it also depends on us talking to our coalition partners about what’s possible. We’re mindful of keeping all these people happy.”

Fortunately, New Zealand’s telecommunications sector isn’t a political football, as is often the case in Australia. Faafoi sees clear benefits in a broadly bi-partisan approach.

He says: “If you look at the consumer experience, such as New Zealanders’ consumption of the likes of Netflix and other content providers, the fact that UFB is now ubiquitous means that the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders can access those services at good speeds. That’s unlocking the capability of broadband. 5G has the potential to extend that.”

There has been talk of possible industry co-operation on a 5G network build. Faafoi thinks it’s not the minister’s job to get involved in this kind of debate at this stage.

He says: “If there is any concern about competition issues, then the Commerce Commission will take a keen interest in that. The industry co-operation with the RBI [Rural Broadband Initiative], most people think that has been good. Whether something similar could work for 5G is up to the telco sector and whether the benefits work for them.

“The competition side is left to the regulator. It’s also up to the players. I’m sure if they went down that path [of co-operation] the Commerce Commission would keep a close eye on it.”

There is another regulatory issue over who gets to build the 5G network. At the time of writing, Huawei appears to be on the outer. Faafoi says the company isn’t banned. “It’s a regulatory process. The GCSB [Government Communications Security Bureau] has given its take on this process. The ball is now in Spark’s court. It can choose to mitigate some of the GCSB’s concerns.

“All the telcos know there is a regulatory process in the TICSA legislation [the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Act 2013]. Regardless of who the vendor is, they all have to go through the same process. The legislation has been in place for some time, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to them. They’ve all been through it many times before.”

It is for this reason that Faafoi is not worried about existing Huawei telecommunications equipment already in the ground or on mobile towers. “My understanding is that this has already been through the regulatory process. If the regulator has said that it meets the test, it’s [just] an example of where the process has come to a conclusion. There’s a journey through that process for every vendor and we’re at the early stage of that.”

“If our future sense of identity is delivered digitally, then we can't afford to leave people out”

Sporting issues loom

The America’s Cup is not the only looming sporting fixture likely to pressure Spark. Later this year the company will broadcast the 2019 Rugby World Cup online.

While some games will also be on free-to-air television, there are fears the event could run into problems. After all, there are precedents. Last year Optus had issues streaming the football World Cup in Australia.

Faafoi says there are lessons from the Optus experience that can be applied to Spark and the Rugby World Cup. After all, rugby is important to New Zealanders.

While he doesn’t think the Government needs to step in, he says his office is staying in close contact with Simon Moutter and his team at Spark.

“We’re asking questions like will everyone who wants to watch it be able to be connected in time?

"I can’t go into detail, but I’m confident that Spark has mitigated concerns in terms of their transmission. The problems Optus faced have been identified and fixed."

That covers the back end. When it comes to the end users, Faafoi says education is the next step. "Not everyone has a smart TV. If New Zealanders want to watch at home and their TV isn’t smart, they’re going to have to get an upgrade or find a way around this and learn how to use the technology before it starts.

"Eight people in a family all huddling around an iPad is not going to be fun.

"A lot of households will have to clue themselves up about getting signals to their televisions. I’d rather they figure that out early, so they don’t have to sit there with a cold beer at the first game and battle with a remote control or their Chromecast."

There is a clear link between making sure all New Zealanders are able to watch the Rugby World Cup and the more serious matter of seeing everyone can access the telecommunications networks.

Faafoi says one of his main goals is closing the digital divide. "The economic driver we want to get out of the digital economy is huge and we want to make sure all New Zealanders have the ability to take part in that. What I see with installs is great, but it’s also about getting a handle on what we can do for under-served families that will make a difference."

He has taken a close personal interest in the issue since before he became minister.

He says: "I’ve sat on a Computers in Homes’ board for a year and half in my own electorate. I know there are lots of great community-based organisations doing good work to see that refugees, recent migrants and families that are struggling financially can have access to the type of basic kit that allows them to take part [in the community] and, importantly, that their kids can take part.

"They will be working in a world that’s different. If they can’t get in from an early age, then they won’t be prepared for the economy that is ahead of them. If our future sense of identity is delivered digitally, then we can't afford to leave people out."