(Photo: RNZ)

An agreement signed just before Waitangi Day this year marked an important victory for Māori in the long-running battle for spectrum rights. Here’s Andrew Robb, a member of the Māori Spectrum Working Group, to explain spectrum — and what it means for Māori. (See also Piripi Walker on the significance of this agreement.)


What is spectrum? 

Electromagnetic radiation is a natural resource, a part of the universe and the environment we live in. It’s carried by waves, travelling at the speed of light, through space and around the world. 

Like waves in the sea, if you’re standing still, the peaks and troughs of longer waves go past you at lower frequencies, and shorter wavelengths at higher frequencies. 

Different wavelengths have different properties. Visible light is one part of the spectrum, and different wavelengths are seen as different colours of the rainbow. 

Red light has longer waves (lower frequencies) than orange, yellow, green and blue. Violet light is the highest frequency visible to humans, but the spectrum carries on to ultraviolet light, which is invisible but causes sunburn (and fluorescent paint to glow in the dark), X-rays, and on through gamma radiation and so on. 

What is spectrum used for? 

The long, low-frequency waves on the radio spectrum carry lower energy but travel greater distances and can bend and pass through solid materials (hills and buildings) more easily. It’s mostly used for long-range voice broadcasting. 

Shorter, higher-frequency waves have more energy, and can carry more data, but only across lines of sight. 

FM frequencies are used for local broadcasts of music; UHF carries television pictures; and higher frequencies carry data for cellphones. 

The higher the frequency, and the more data is carried, the more towers are needed to build a network. As technology advances, higher frequencies can be used for new purposes. 

Why should Māori care? 

Until 1990, the spectrum was a commons, managed by the government to prevent interference (overlapping uses). 

In effect, the government owned and operated all radio and TV channels until 1966, when the first private radio station was set up in New Zealand. That was Radio Hauraki, a “pirate radio” station, which started its broadcasts from a boat outside the three-mile territorial limit so it wasn’t subject to New Zealand radio licencing laws. 

The arrival of Radio Hauraki led to a regime of government licences issued to private radio stations to use a specific frequency. But “ownership” of spectrum wasn’t an issue. 

In 1989, as the first Māori radio stations and the first private TV channel began to broadcast, the whole broadcasting industry was upended by Rogernomics. Principles of private property ownership were applied to the spectrum through the Radiocommunications Act. 

Instead of radio stations “borrowing” a frequency which was allocated by the government, they were given a chance to own the frequency, and a market was established for the sale of frequencies to the highest bidder. Government radio and TV broadcasters were corporatised, and generating income became part of their mission (except for Radio New Zealand). 

Māori groups which supported Māori broadcasting, as a way to protect and promote te reo Māori, saw a risk of Māori losing access to the spectrum for iwi radio and Māori TV — and the likelihood that Māori language wouldn’t be broadcast on public radio or TV because a free market would shut out a minority interest in a ratings-driven industry. 

What have Māori done about spectrum? 

As soon as the government created private property rights in the spectrum, Māori groups began a long battle to secure their aboriginal and Treaty rights. Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i te Reo secured FM frequencies and funding for iwi radio, and, together with the NZ Māori Council, launched a legal battle to secure a place for te reo Māori in broadcasting.

That became a 20-year campaign, fought out before the Waitangi Tribunal, the High Court and the Court of Appeal, all the way to the Privy Council in London, and then back to New Zealand and into negotiations with the government for a Māori TV channel. 

Under the new private property regime of spectrum ownership, the government sold radio frequencies for new technologies by auction. 

Māori claimed ownership rights to spectrum, on the basis that spectrum is a taonga, part of their estates and properties, and that their tino rangatiratanga was guaranteed by the Treaty of Waitangi. 

The government said it acknowledged Māori claims only where spectrum was used for broadcasting te reo Māori. But it did not accept that spectrum was a taonga. 

At each auction, for 3G and 4G spectrum, Māori renewed their claims, which were rejected by the government. (At the same time, to appease Māori, the government offered some funding to promote Māori participation in the telecommunications industry and the growing digital economy.) 

What is this agreement? 

As the 3.5GHz auction loomed for 5G technology in 2019, the government and Māori entered into further negotiations, to try to reach an enduring agreement on a way past the impasse. 

The Māori Spectrum Working Group (MSWG) included representatives of Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau and the NZ Māori Council, who had both been claimants in previous spectrum claims. It also included the Iwi Chairs Forum, Te Huarahi Tika Trust, and Māori experts in the telecommunications industry.

The group met with successive ministers of Communications and the Digital Economy, Māori Affairs, Treaty Relationships, and Finance, and officials from their departments. 

After nearly three years, they agreed on a package of measures that they expect will provide real opportunities for Māori to get involved in spectrum developments, as “owners” of spectrum, in ways that will benefit Māori and all New Zealanders. 

The main elements of the package are: 

    • an allocation to Māori of 20 percent (over time) of all commercial spectrum, at no cost 
    • a Māori Spectrum Entity (a commission?) to be set up to manage Māori interests in spectrum and to promote Māori participation in telecommunications and the digital economy 
    • an investment package (Pūtea Tautoko) to generate an independent revenue stream (no ongoing government funding) and to help Māori enter into commercial relationships with existing players 
    • a stronger voice for Māori in spectrum policy 
    • the whole agreement to be enshrined in legislation. 

The government made clear that it still does not accept that spectrum is a taonga, and this agreement is not a settlement of spectrum claims. Māori have been assured that this agreement does not diminish any Māori rights under tikanga or the Treaty of Waitangi, and current claims are protected. 

Māori want to “own” spectrum, not to set up their own separate network, but as an incentive for existing telecommunications companies to enter into commercial deals with Māori. 

Māori believe that their involvement, with their fresh ideas and unique cultural approaches to economic, social and cultural development, will be good for all New Zealanders. 

Both parties hope the agreement will open up a pathway forward for Māori, and, if it achieves its goals, Māori will feel satisfied that their place in the digital future is assured. 

What happens next? 

Legislation is being drafted to clarify all the details — such as, what the structure of the new Māori Spectrum Entity will be, how it will be accountable to Māori, and how the range of Māori interests will be represented. This is a public process, with input through consultations and submissions to a select committee. 

The Māori Spectrum Working Group is planning a series of engagements and consultations with Māori groups, to explain the deal and to encourage Māori involvement in planning and establishing the new arrangements. 

The MSWG will continue to negotiate with the Crown and report to Māori — and an Interim Māori Spectrum Commission is already starting to plan and implement parts of the agreement. 

And to get really technical . . .

Electromagnetic waves vary in length across the spectrum, from kilometres between crests for long-wave radio frequencies, to wavelengths of millimetres for microwaves, and thousandths of a millimetre between crests for visible light, millionths of a millimetre for X-rays, and millionths of that for gamma radiation.

The waves travel around the speed of light, so the waves go past very fast (high frequency), and are measured in Hertz, which is one wave passing per second.

The broadcasting and telecommunications spectrum starts at frequencies of 3 KiloHertz (kHz = thousand Hertz) and runs from long- and medium-wave radio through short-wave radio, VHF (very high frequency) radio, to UHF (ultra-high frequency) around 3 MHz (MegaHertz = million Hertz) for TV, and up through the frequencies used for the second-generation (2G) cellphones towards microwave-lengths of 3 GHz (GigaHertz = billions of Hertz), 3G phones that carried texts and emails, and 4G for the current smartphones.

The next generation of telecommunications technology, 5G, will use a band of frequencies around 3.5GHz.  Even higher frequencies carry infra-red radiation, then visible light. Frequencies above that damage living tissue: X-rays, that go through the body, are given in small doses, and gamma radiation from nuclear explosions is fatal at close range. Even gamma radiation from the sun would harm life on earth, if we weren’t protected by the ozone layer.

2G, 3G, 4G and 5G refers to the technology as second, third, fourth or fifth generation, and 3GHZ refers to the frequency of the waves in Hertz — three billion waves going past per second.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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