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Waiting for the convergent regulator

This paper presents a historical analysis of the ideas and decisions that have led to the current regulatory structure governing Australian communications. In particular, it asks what happened to the idea of a convergent communications regulator in the lead up to the ‘post 1997’ telecommunications regime.

There has been discussion for decades about whether to introduce a single convergent communications regulator. This has centred around the potential of such a regulator/planner to introduce a broad view, reduce duplications and conflicts, and be sufficiently large to avoid capture by particular viewpoints and short-term sectoral demands. In the last decade there has been a new driver, in the form of ‘convergence’ or the ‘digital revolution’, which has produced a new crop of confusions and overlaps, and brought into focus the discrepancies between different regulatory systems affecting equivalent forms of communications.

In the early 1990s, it was expected that a convergent regulator would be the next step in the transition of communications, to merge and simplify the work of the Australian Telecommunications Authority (AUSTEL), the Spectrum Management Agency (SMA) and the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA). However, the 1997 reshuffle of roles was instead dominated by the new role of the ‘super-regulator’, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), with accompanying merger of AUSTEL and the SMA to form the Australian Communications Authority (ACA) and retention of the ABA (plus executive government and a host of other bodies with some regulatory, planning or advisory role).

The paper finds that a combination of factors contributed to preventing the ‘post 1997’ policy-review process from producing a convergent regulator: lack of an appropriate champion; the apparent difficulty of the task; the distraction of the competing competition agendas; and a focus on telecommunications, rather than the whole communications sector. The lessons to be learned from that history have particular resonance in late 2002, as the roles of the ABA and ACA are again being examined.

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