Crossed wires

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 May, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 May, 2003, 12:00am

A triumph of technical achievement and innovation. That was a common reaction, last year, when state-owned Chunghwa Telecom branched away from its traditional business and began broadcasting interactive television services over its phone lines.

It seemed everyone loved this technological breakthrough - everyone except Taiwan's cable TV operators. Not only was the phone company muscling in on their turf, but it was a one-way street: cable TV companies were not free to offer telephone services to their clients.

The phone company could bridge the hidden divide, but the TV companies could not - unless they applied for a licence and paid a hefty fee.

The existing industry regulators were of little help. Taiwan's regulator of the media and broadcast industry is the Government Information Office. When Chunghwa started its service, the regulator was ready to step in and be the overseer.

But the phone company objected, since its activities were already regulated by the Ministry of Transportation and Communications. This made the TV companies even unhappier: they pointed out that the ministry would not have the power or skill to regulate the television content offered by the phone company.

It is the kind of muddle that many countries must face in this new, so-called 'convergent' sector, where the lines are blurred between telecommunications and broadcasting. Who will sort it out?

In Taiwan, hopes lie with an organisation still in the planning stage - the national communications commission (NCC). It is a pet project of some reform-minded politicians and bureaucrats who see it as a vital overseer in the tricky new regulatory environment.

Inspired by the US Federal Communications Commission, the NCC has been on the cards for years. It was originally meant to solve exactly such regulatory conflicts as the phone-cable dispute, but its scope has been limited by various ministerial policies and the watering down of its enabling legislation. The NCC will no longer be involved in policy, as earlier drafts had envisioned, making it much more of an after-the-fact, third party.

But despite the watering down of the new regulator, the plans are still being labelled as a bold step for the Taiwanese authorities.

To totally renovate the regulatory environment will, no doubt, cause some short-term instability, mostly on the government side, but it would establish a solid foundation upon which future broadcast and telecoms companies could expand with confidence.

The remaining hurdle is legislative approval - one which is not insignificant. If all goes according to plan, the laws will be passed and the NCC will be operating in the middle of next year. But will it allow cable companies to offer phone calls? That remains to be seen.