New Zealand 4G LTE rollout at risk of being delayed by “air space” cultural rights controversy  

New Zealand is currently going through the process of freeing up mobile network spectrum by disabling analogue television broadcasts nationwide, but after months of delays by the government, networks still do not know what rights they have to the spectrum. Without this knowledge, they can’t plan future 4G networks (as there are many different spectrum types that operate globally) so development is stalled.

Carriers in New Zealand are trialing 4G LTE right now, and I’ve heard first hand that it’s actually ready to go in some cases, pending spectrum allocation, but it looks like it’s going to be held back from the public due to a grab for the actual air space the networks would “use” by the native people of the country.

Background: The Maori people of New Zealand were (subject to much controversy) the first in New Zealand. European explorers later found the country and after much fighting with the Maori, a treaty was signed:

It guaranteed to Māori the right to keep their lands, forests, fisheries and all their treasures, but they would hand sovereignty in the English version, and governorship in the Māori version, over to the Crown and would also be able to sell only to the Crown. Initially, there was little dispute, as the settlers were able to buy land from the Māori through legal channels. However, after a while, Māori became disillusioned and less willing to sell, while the Crown came under increasing pressure from settlers wishing to buy. Consequently, government land agents were involved in a number of dubious land purchases.

Fast-forward to the 80’s, and the New Zealand government started allowing Maori people to claim grievance (current and historical) under the treaty and offers settlements based on that.

The Maori have successfully claimed ownership of mobile spectrum previously by stating it is a “treasure” of theirs and that the government has no right to sell it. In 1999, they were granted one of four available blocks of 2GHz 3G spectrum licenses for a discounted price by the court, plus $5 million dollars in damages to develop it.

That spectrum was then licensed to create a new carrier in the market, 2 Degrees Mobile, which has significantly disrupted the New Zealand market by means of aggressive pricing tactics.

Now, the Maori are claiming that the 700MHz spectrum (which is critical for 4G LTE networks) should belong to them under the same “treasure” law, and that they should be allocated a block (or the entirety of it should belong to them).

The New Zealand government has always felt that air space is not a treasure, but the courts decided differently previously. The current government – National – still disagrees that spectrum should be able to be claimed as a “treasure.”

To take it one step further, Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples wrote to Computerworld last month saying that unless there was a “principled Treaty-based agreement” between the Crown and Maori claimants, disputes would arise every time a spectrum auction was proposed.

A proposal put forward by the Economic Development Ministry would allow Vodafone, Telecom and 2 Degrees to each secure 10MHz of the available 45MHz of spectrum (whilst letting one carrier grab 20MHz and another 15MHz), but the proposal ignores “rights” arguments and the spectrum is likely priced out of reach for 2Degrees or Maori to purchase outright.

The government still does not have a solution for the problem yet, and it’s now becoming likely the auction will slip it’s target date of March 2013, delaying the roll-out of 4G LTE networks by both Telecom and Vodafone.

I’ve not heard of any issues threatening the roll out of 4G globally like this at all. It’s a pretty unique situation to have mobile networks ready to roll, but being roadblocked by cultural claims to the actual air space. I’m hoping this gets worked out pretty swiftly. I’m not in politics, but from a technology standpoint, it seems ridiculously stupid to allow a group to roadblock developments like this.


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