Phone licences herald new era

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 March, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 March, 1995, 12:00am

BRAVO! After much waiting, licences have been granted that will allow three new fixed-line network operators to start competing against the long-held Hongkong Telephone monopoly from the end of June.

Though the delay in granting the licences has made it virtually impossible for the three new players - New T & T, New World Telephone and Hutchison Communications - to start offering competitive services as early as they might have liked, at least now we will start to learn what the future of telecommunications holds for Hong Kong.

Consumers can expect to see a series of soft-launches for new products and services from these companies. It should prove to be an exciting time.

If the Hong Kong telecommunications environment has already been characterised by excellence of service, we should expect competition to drive the industry to new heights. Lean, mean and, more importantly, connivingly innovative.

One only has to look to the recent announcement by Hongkong Telecom - that it will shed more than 2,000 employees through natural attrition in the next couple of years - to see the impact that the de-regulation process has already had on the industry.

The process through which licences needed to be approved by the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group (JLG) was unnecessarily long and put the industry through a period of unnecessary uncertainty.

The delays appear to have had a bad impact on the various negotiations by the parties concerned over interconnect arrangements - adding an air of unreality to the proceedings.

This is unfortunate as it put unnecessary strains on relationships right from the outset.

It can only be hoped that since the licences have been given the go-ahead, some of the unpleasantness can be put into the background, and that the newly-competitive services will get off the ground as soon as possible.

It can only be hoped also, that the regulatory body, the Office of the Telecommunications Authority (OFTA) will take a proactive role in the negotiations sooner rather than later.

Though OFTA was somewhat hamstrung while the JLG deliberated over the issue the licences, it now has the mandate to see that interconnect arrangements are agreed on.

Consumers should look forward in the coming months to progress - good news about the telecommunications industry that we can look forward to in the near future. MERE mention of the words 'electronic data interchange' (EDI) is usually enough to clear a room - as people dive out of windows rather than risk hearing more tales of disaster in the implementation of this apparently all-important trading system.

Hong Kong's attempts to establish a community-wide EDI system through the Tradelink consortium has been nothing short of hilariously funny - if it were not for the fact that its continuing failure is so disheartening and tragic.

Anyway, maybe EDI does have a chance after all. Yet another consortium (with some also members of Tradelink) has been formed to set up a commercially viable EDI solution in Hong Kong by July.

The organisation is the Transportation Community Network (CargoNet), and it would appear on paper at least to have the right backers to get a system off the ground.

CargoNet's general manager Lloyd Sanford says the aim of the group is to make the system as simple and inexpensive as possible.

The company wants people to start looking at the advantages of EDI, rather than always concentrating on the difficulties and expense of such systems, Mr Sanford said.

Meanwhile, Tradelink still exists, though it is less than clear why. Having been trying to get a commercial EDI system up and running since the mid-'80s, it now says its commercial product is not likely to make it to market before the middle of next year.

Tradelink is, unfortunately for the people that have tried to establish some credibility for the information technology industry in Hong Kong, perhaps the longest-running joke the industry has ever witnessed in Asia.