Maori and the Digital Spectrum

A quiet storm has been sweeping through the world of Maori ICT (Information & Communication Technology). No, it wasn’t the release of a new product, nor was it the announcement by the internet coalition calling out the high prices imposed by Chorus on the current ultra fast broadband roll out. Behind the scenes, a $30m fund is being decided and divided amongst a host of non-ICT players, all with the hope that no one will contest the validity of a deal done in secret.

Maori in ICT are the silent workers in the larger Maori workforce. When a website needs to be made or an online campaign designed, our whanau tend to look around for a person who possess the skills to create, the ability to generate and can take a bag of frybread as payment. When a computer is pakaru or a smartphone has locked us out, there is always one cuzzie who knows how to fix it and if lucky, they might get a lunch for providing assistance.

In this multi-trillion dollar world of IT, many Maori ICT workers sit uncomfortably between a passion that we love and a burden than we wear. While the industry is awash with cash and primed for innovation, the value tends to be lost in translation.

So it has been quite frustrating to hear about Maori not being included in the upcoming allocation of 700mhz spectrum. This new area for data sharing came about when television signals were moved from their analogue frequencies and switched over to digital channels. Digital spectrum offers a better quality signal, over a greater range. This conversion has occurring across the world, with the US, the UK, Australia and the many other countries having completed or are in the midst of changing. For broadcasters, it requires updating most of their existing infrastructure; for households, we all need to purchase set top boxes (Sky, Igloo) to access channels. It continues to be an expensive process but one, we are told, is vitally necessary.

Now, the old analogue frequencies are perfect for new generation devices, such as smartphones, as they are able to carry signals across a newly unoccupied space. Across the world, Governments have netted huge sums – since July 1994, the FCC conducted 87 spectrum auctions, which raised over $60 billion for the U.S, the UK government raised £22.5 billions (EUR 38.3 billions) from an auction of five licences for radio spectrum to support the 3G mobile telephony standard, and here in Aotearoa, spectrum auctions are anticipated to raise somewhere between $300 – $400m. While this is great for Government coffers, it is clear that Maori will miss out in developing new platforms for innovation.

The National Government line has been to push Maori ICT leaders into defense mode. By promoting a process that heavily favours large Telco’s like Telecom and Vodafone, spectrum has been turned from a collectively held state right into a now individualised property right, able to be sold and transferred to the highest bidder. It is this move that has angered many Maori in the ICT industry, as Maori are cut out from participating in this new industry and watch as international corporates determine how local communities interact with these new technologies.

In response, Maori had signaled to the Government that selling a collective State right and turning it into a individual property right has precedent – as seen with fisheries quota management allocation – and that Maori as of right under the Treaty of Waitangi, Article 2, have valid claims to access digital spectrum. In reply, various Government agencies have cited that spectrum was unknown when the Treaty was signed, cannot be considered a taonga and is exempt from Maori claims.

In an interesting twist, a claim poised to be filed with the Waitangi Tribunal by concerned te reo Maori advocates cite previous cases where radio frequencies were protected to develop Iwi Stations, tv allocations were made to create Maori TV and 2G spectrum set aside so that Maori could enter into a commercial relationship with 2 Degrees mobile. In this instance with the 700mhz auctions, Maori are now being told that our rights no longer exist and to this, a $30m package is the best we could ask for.

In the scheme of things, such a fund is sorely needed by Maori IT whanau. Even though the industry is seen as a lucrative driver for economic development, in the Maori world it sits behind the giants of forests, farms, education, social services and fishing. Maori ICT is the poor cousin in the economic sense, though it is claimed that an extra 60,000 ICT workers are needed in New Zealand over the next 10 years. The irony is that most Maori who qualify or are passionate about ICT will have to find jobs with a major ICT firm or head overseas, as our own Maori ICT industry lacks cohesive support.

Whanau in ICT are left with few options.

On the one hand, an assortment of ICT interests will most likely determine how the money is allocated and will seek to control the $30m, claiming that to file the Maori Spectrum claim is costly and the recent loss by the Maori Council over water rights signals that we could lose in court. Very little of this will trickle down to whanau, and will probably find its way into the hands of existing Government funded ICT groups.

On the other hand, those who choose not to fight look to benefit. From the recent NetHui 2013, held in Wellington, a group of 7 Maori ICT-specific groups emerged – the Digital Maori Forum (DMF), Nga Pu Waea, the NZ Maori Internet Society, Te Huarahi Tika Trust, 2020 Communications, Hautaki Limited and Te Roopu Whakahau (Maori librarian network). These 7 split into 2 camps – those who receive support and funds from the Government or the Industry (Nga Pu Waea, Te Huarahi Tika Trust, 2020 Communications, Hautaki Limited, Te Roopu Whakahau) and those who rely on mahi aroha (the Digital Maori Forum (DMF), the NZ Maori Internet Society). Within the paid roopu, 3 have basically the same membership and look to be the go-to organisations for the $30m distribution, essentially leaving all others out.

Meanwhile, the Government will be laughing all the way to the bank.

The single biggest issue has been the lack of transparency around Maori Spectrum. Over the course of 3 years, numerous hui have been held, with hand picked, Government appointed representatives leading all discussions. Independent Maori ICT whanau who work in the industry every day have not been invited, nor encouraged to sit in on these discussions. The National Government has failed to be upfront about how Maori could participate, instead using the $30m as a default fund. The same people who organized previous Maori ICT allocations are in charge and personalities seem to rule the day.

As a Maori whanau who live and breath ICT, it has been a shock to see such a blatant disregard for practitioner opinion. We are currently watching corporates collude with Government to seize digital spectrum and lament the fact that no one seems to have regard for tangata whenua rights and interests, amd even less regard for ICT whanau who do the business every day on the smell of an oily rag. It is amazing what a few pieces of silver can do to our own.

In this highly charged environment, it is usual for Maori to bring major discussions back to the marae and for all parties interested in the kaupapa to meet around the table to fully discuss proposed next steps.

Instead, we are seeing Government appointed Maori leaders speak over the top of whanau interests, never totally declaring what is being discussed and secretively positioning so that when the $30m is officially announced, a plan is already in play. What some of us are anticipating is the creation of a slush fund which is then apportioned to pet projects, or ‘Maori ICT Think Big Projects’ that have profit, and not whanau Maori, at its core.

Facing such insurmountable odds, there seems to be no easy solution. Maori can either take the money or fight for spectrum, and lose. With these options, it is no wonder that the korero has gone underground. With the elections just around a corner, this issue looks to be a lightning rod for action, much like the national broadband plan in Australia was. Lets hope that whanau Maori aren’t the ultimate losers in this digital civil war.