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I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the value of electromagnetic spectrum real-estate. It proved quite topical – as I wrote it I had no idea that Stephen Joyce was about to release an emphatic "no" to requests from the Maori Council for rights to the 4G spectrum (See e.g. the TVNZ coverage of this story).

What’s this about?  Well, when NZ television viewers (which I guess is most of us) are finally forced to throw away their otherwise perfectly good analogue sets in a few years time, and go digital, the frequencies currently used to broadcast the analogue signals (the ’4G’ band) become available for other uses. They’re earmarked for mobile phone and internet, and will be of significant value to the people who have the rights to use them.

So who controls organizations’ rights to use this spectrum (i.e. transmit things)? The government says it is them, and solely them. And I would imagine that’s the way it is in almost all countries with effective governments. A free-for-all of the airwaves doesn’t work; you can’t have two broadcasts on the same frequency in the same region or your receiver will pick up a combination of both, which isn’t likely to be very meaningful.

Apparantly the spectrum has been declared as taonga by the Waitangi Tribunal (implying that there should be some Maori ownership / control of it), but previous governments have refused to recognise this. (N.B. For you non-New Zealanders, taonga, broadly speaking, can be translated as ‘treasure’). In the TVNZ article Joyce is quoted as saying  "Because spectrum was not in use at the time that the treaty was signed [1840] and was not known at the time that the treaty was signed, it’s difficult to argue it was taonga". 

That’s reasonable enough, but one could also argue that just because people didn’t know of the existence of something doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.  If a new oil-field were discovered on Maori-owned land somewhere, one could expect a very reasonable claim to be made by the owners on the contents.  In 1840, no-one knew that this entity (‘the spectrum’) existed (Hmm.. could debate that one, I mean people knew that the visible spectrum wasn’t all there was and that infra-red existed), let alone the potential value of it, but it was still there. Maybe not as a treasure (can you treasure something you don’t know exists?) but certainly as something of value.

One could counter that by saying that the government is duty bound to act in the best interests of its citizens (ha ha, yeah, right)  including Maori, and, in this case, proper development of the 4G band should ensure massive benefit to the country. Since NZ is on the edge of nowhere, a good internet etc is likely to be more useful to NZ than it is to many other countries. And I would like to think that the government is in the best position to deliver on that.

The more I think about it the more thorny this one is.