Only The Market Can Properly Reshape The Media

Robert Menzies despised television and stated privately that he hoped it would not be introduced during his government. Does Communications Minister Helen Coonan have a similar attitude towards the next radical media change?

Given the opportunity to robustly liberalise the regulatory environment that the Australian media has been subject to for over a century, the government has declined to act.

There are big entrenched media companies which have made large investment decisions based on the current framework, and the political reality is that genuine deregulation would have to be a slow and careful process. But instead of attempting to unwind our Byzantine media regulations, at whatever pace, the government’s media reforms do nothing more than add more rope.

For instance, the proposed auction of two additional swathes of spectrum should have been greeted with enthusiasm. Entrepreneurial companies which had won these new licences could have used them to deliver whatever services they perceived to be in demand.

Instead, the government has chosen to dictate to potential users the terms and conditions of their licences, terms and conditions which will not apply to existing users of broadcast spectrum. This “command and control” approach to economic management has been discredited in both theory and practise. It’s ill-suited to managing a limited and static array of services, and it’s doubly unsuited to manage the fast paced and high-risk communications and media industry.

It does, however, allow the government to claim credit, as the Communications Minister did this week, for any potential new services delivered within their strict framework. What Coonan fails to mention is the services that the government will not allow us to receive. To this end the government has invented two terms, “narrowcasting” and “datacasting”, defined not by what they can do, but what they cannot.

One of the channels to be auctioned is allowed to broadcast free-to-air, but not replicate traditional TV services. Why not?

The government is not a suitable body to predict the possibilities of and the demand for newer forms of media. Only a market unhindered by restriction is capable of doing so with any success.

Similar objections can be raised to the government’s proposal to replace one elaborate formula for media ownership restriction within a market with another elaborate formula. While touted as a grand liberalisation of ownership regulations, they are in fact, little more than minor adjustments. For advocates of genuine deregulation throughout the economy, this should be a disappointment.

Many critics of the reform proposals hinge their arguments upon the potential lessening of diversity that could be the result of consolidation within the industry.

It is absurd to argue that media diversity will decline without stringent checks on the ownership of broadcast media outlets. In no era in history has this been less true. While the internet has been justifiably praised in bringing alternative viewpoints and independent media outlets to the home, rapid technological improvements in seemingly mature industries like printing have increased in the last few decades the volume of magazines, newspapers and printed material manyfold.

Anybody who doubts that minority or niche voices will not get heard after genuine media reforms should consult the vast ethnic press, made possible by dramatically lower print production costs.

In fact, mergers between media organisations could have tangible benefits. A fully vertically integrated corporation, able to command world-wide news gathering and content production, may be able to produce a far better and diverse range of services.

The massive competitive pressure exerted upon existing media companies from the proliferating new media compels dramatic change, even in such seemingly dominant organisations as News Ltd. Rupert Murdoch’s recent acquisition of the social networking website MySpace is a case in point.

These gains are not guaranteed, however. The US market, after a rush of media consolidation in the 1990s as companies rushed to prepare for the digital era, has been beset by a series of failures and divestitures. AOL Time Warner has been shedding assets now that the financial gains expected from its highly publicised merger have not appeared. Viacom, Disney, Clear Channel, Knight-Ridder and many others have downsized or spun off companies in the last few years.

But these companies need the freedom to experiment, and fail, with new business models.

New media organisations are popular and influential, and will become more so. Governments of all stripes across the world are struggling to predict its significance. That is understandable – nobody has any inkling of how these changes will pan out.

But instead of indulging itself in public consultations and submission processes, commissioning reports and carefully releasing sections of the spectrum with highly prescriptive regulations, the government would be far better to leave the future of the Australian media up to the market.

There is no convincing reason why entrepreneurs, allowed to experiment with new technologies and business models, cannot amply deliver the services that Australian consumers demand now and into the future.

Regulator Should Butt Out On Fibre-Optic Broadband

It is unfortunate for consumers and businesses that Telstra’s potential $3 billion-plus investment in a large-scale fibre-optic network and the coming T3 sale have coincided.

The debate over the two have rarely been separated, but at stake are two very separate issues, with very separate stakeholders. Treasury officials are concerned with maximising the price of Telstra’s sale, but consumers and businesses should be concerned about the circumstances in which we allow infrastructure investment in this country.

As Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Graeme Samuel has correctly noted, Telstra’s fibre-optic plan is “not the only game in town”. A consortium of Telstra’s competitors, including Optus, Macquarie Telecom, Primus and Internode, have proposed an open-access network. Tellingly, all their proposals would require heavy investment from Telstra.

Telstra’s competitors are merely following Telstra chief executive Sol Trujillo’s lead and conducting regulatory negotiations through press statements.

Unfortunately for the regulator, the obstinate Telstra refuses to sign up to its competitors’ plans. Telstra has the money to do so, but, under the current regulatory framework, no desire. And why should it? The ACCC has argued that any investment by the carrier would be subject to a “fair” return. But it is not the ACCC embarking on this risky business venture – Telstra is a company that at least in theory should be aiming to maximise its financial returns. If a company, or individual for that matter, makes an investment in the market, they should be subject to their own judgement of what constitutes a fair return, not what a national regulator considers one to be.

But such thinking is largely alien to the ACCC, which has long believed itself to be the patriarch of large infrastructure investment in Australia.

The classic justification for the imposition by a regulator of shared access does not apply to Telstra’s fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) proposal.

The carrier built its copper-wire network under a government-imposed monopoly. It used taxpayers’ funds to do so. Under these circumstances, it was perhaps reasonable to have a regulator open the network up to ensure at least the vestiges of competition. But there are very real problems with such a regulatory regime.

Access-based competition encourages service providers, initially leeching off the monopoly provider’s network, to step up the “ladder of investment” – slowly investing more and more in the existing infrastructure. This has its advantages in a marketplace with little innovation.

But having now invested a great deal in the existing network, these carriers are faced with the prospect of being abandoned by Telstra as it jumps into a largely separate new network.

The ACCC’s framework has encouraged the growth of small, fly-by-night internet service providers, whose business model is nothing more than a reliance on the ACCC-determined access prices. Country-wide, there are more than 250 of these ISPs, encouraged not by the whim of the free market, but by the decrees of the regulator. Given their perilous profitability, they are ill-equipped to withstand the rapid technological change of the sector.

Access sharing does nothing to encourage true, facilities-based competition. And there are few other industries where facilities-based competition, and the innovation which propels it, are of such paramount importance. Given the ever-increasing range of technology by which high-speed broadband can be delivered to the home – and to the mobile phone – we cannot afford to discourage entrepreneurs from experimenting with new business models and products.

And, not least, access sharing constitutes a massive taking of property rights. This may not have been of much concern to regulators a decade ago, when they were faced with the taxpayer-supported Telecom, but with a nominally private company whose investments are subject to free will, this should be of great concern.

The communications market has been liberalised for the past decade and subject to a radical shift in emphasis. It is important to remember that consumer demand has moved from the basic telephone service to mobile telephones, to video-playing iPods. There are now large numbers of telecommunications providers, many of which are justly proud of their investments in infrastructure across the country.

But Telstra’s competitors and the ACCC want to migrate the access-sharing framework, developed a decade ago for a monopoly network provider, onto a fibre-optic network developed by an entrepreneurial company with private capital. The FTTN network is highly speculative. Given the current state of technological innovation, it is a risky investment. Telstra must bear this risk alone.

The FTTN network will not be the last investment Australian firms make in telecommunications infrastructure. Rapid technological change makes it a certainty that every few years significant upgrades will be made to our national communications networks. But if regulators are given a right of reply to every investment and pricing adjustment, Australian broadband will lag well behind what a wealthy, prosperous nation should have.

Halters On Google For Now

Decisions by Microsoft and Google to obey repressive Chinese censorship in order to expand into the Chinese market do not represent a “surrender” (“Giants melt beneath the Great Firewall of China”, Opinion, February 3).

But it is not clear what Google and Microsoft’s critics in this case are actually advocating. It seems unlikely that they would have been able to negotiate away the censorship. The power of Google is mighty, but the Chinese regime’s stubbornness is by all reports mightier.

Should technology companies choose not to operate in China as a symbolic stand against the regime? If this is the case, should we refuse to trade with countries whose trade is not entirely free? It is hard to imagine any winners in either scenario.

But as innovative companies make inroads into Chinese markets, citizens now have access to the latest communications technologies.

Even without the capacity to search for words like Tiananmen, access to the infinite ocean of the internet will have real and concrete effects. The desire for political and economic freedom is not contingent upon access to freedom.org. Political thought is much less obvious than that.

The situation is not ideal. But more political freedom – and Google and Microsoft’s expansions do represent that – is better than less. We must not let the best become the enemy of the good.

ACCC Paying Lip-Service To Innovation

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Graeme Samuel now argues that content is the determining factor in whether a media company is being anti-competitive. (“Consumers the key to media revolution”, AFR, November 18).

Samuel says that the bar for monopoly has been substantially lowered. Now all it takes is an assessment that a company is acquiring too much premium content – sporting content, obviously, but movies as well. This judgement will continue to change as tastes do. He mentions tennis, AFL, rugby and cricket, but not soccer, which is now about as premium as you can get.

But it is the capacity for companies to make exclusive content deals that encourages entry into new, developing markets. If the ACCC punishes companies that it deems too enthusiastic in offering value to consumers, it will only make these consumers think twice about adopting the new technologies at all.

Why would the ACCC warn companies off experimenting with new products and services? Samuel may think that he is protecting competition, but by arbitrarily punishing companies he is punishing consumers and stifling innovation.

Such arguments as this betray the fact that the ACCC is merely paying lip-service to the possibilities of new media, rather than understanding its revolutionary consequences.

ACCC Should Be Good Sports

The chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Graeme Samuel, argues that if Telstra acquires the exclusive right to broadcast popular content on mobile phones then its competitors will be discouraged from investing in modern infrastructure. This is not the case.

By allowing service providers like Telstra the capacity to provide exclusive content to their customers, it encourages other networks to develop similar offers.

Optus already provides video news to their mobile customers.

Other phone and internet companies are contentedly building new infrastructure and developing new technologies to provide better, higher quality services to consumers. In the drive to attract more consumers, companies are forced to be more creative and more innovative.

Samuel argues that if Telstra is allowed to provide its customers with Australian Football League statistics and replays then this may cease. This is disingenuous at best.

To pick on one type of entertainment, popular though it may be, and then decide that it is suddenly a public good seems absurd. Exclusive sporting content is not the barrier to third-generation telecommunications competition that the ACCC thinks it is.

Leave sporting rights alone.

Nothing would encourage the competition that the ACCC is sworn to defend like letting the providers actually compete.

Telstra’s Regulatory Waltz

Allan Fels would like to increase the already innumerable regulations to which Telstra is held (“Fully privatised Telstra more of a bully”, Opinion, October 13).

Telstra is already responsible to its customers, its shareholders, the government, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the Australian Communications Authority, not to mention self-regulation groups like the Australian Communications Industry Forum.

Every significant change in price structure is greeted with a barrage of competition notices and inquiries. If Telstra tries to offer discounted prepaid phone packages, they are condemned. If they try to harmonise their fixed line rentals with the new broadband market where many households are disconnecting their second line they are condemned.

Telstra is even condemned by the telecommunications industry ombudsman when their broadband customers voluntarily spend more money than expected.

The price war over broadband earlier this year is a case in point. Every attempt to offer Australian consumers cheaper and faster internet access is in spite of, not because of, the ACCC. No wonder the quality of our internet connections is so low compared to the rest of the world, when it must first sit through this regulatory waltz.

The last thing the industry needs is even more regulation. Already restricted by its universal service obligations and price controls, Telstra has less control over its own direction than does the ACCC. And in a time when broadband is becoming increasingly ubiquitous, the overly aggressive restrictions that Fels proposes will pre-empt a dynamic and competitive industry.