The announcement got no fanfare but Hong Kong has just become an international leader in structuring telecommunications services. The pioneering move was contained in four paragraphs buried in a 26-page 'guidance note' issued on Friday by the Office of the Telecommunications Authority (Ofta). The guidance note tells Hong Kong Cable Television, an arm of Wharf Holdings, how to apply for a licence for Fixed Telecommunications Network Services over its hybrid fibre-coaxial cable network. It says Wharf will have to open its network to other telecoms networks or services on terms that should first be subject to commercial negotiations but will be set by Ofta if no agreement is met. The guidance note also stipulates that the network should provide customers with broadband facilities for access to Internet service providers (ISPs) on terms that are no less favourable than those enjoyed by ISPs affiliated with Cable TV. It's a first because, although fixed-line operators are already required to make their networks available to others, this is a broadband service designed to pipe in cable television and offer Internet users much faster access speeds than conventional telephone modems. As a spokesman for Wharf put it when the news was announced, the big problem in setting interconnection fees will be 'finding precedents anywhere in the world' for open access to such a broadband cable network. Even in the United States there is still a regulatory fight about whether AT&T should open its cable networks to rivals and there is certainly no precedent for it in Asia. If it all goes through smoothly (and Wharf is going to have to think about this a little) it will confirm Hong Kong as a model for the rest of the world in how to wire up a city for all the latest in cable services at the lowest possible cost. It will also show up our Government's idea of trying to concentrate Internet technology in a corner of Pokfulam through its much ballyhooed Cyber-Port project as a dinosaur of pre-history in the field. But in one way it is not that much of change in how the structure of the industry is evolving. It simply takes the process to its logical conclusion. It says that providing a conduit for consumer services and providing the services that go over that conduit are actually quite separate businesses and should be treated that way. The builder or operator of the conduit becomes a utility that requires heavy capital investment and is rewarded by regulatory authorities with guarantees that it can make a steady and satisfactory return on its investment. It is also, however, restrained from making windfall profits on the fees it charges. This removes all the investment and technical headaches of building a conduit from the service provider and leaves it free to do what it does best, which is compete in an open market to sell consumers the services they most want over the conduit. We were headed down this route the day that the Government unwound the telephone monopoly and Ofta has just kept us going down it when the question came up of how a broadband cable network should be run. The news is that we have gone down this route so quickly that we now seem to be running ahead of the rest of the pack and doing so on a worldwide basis. It may mean that we will also be in the forefront when it comes to providing Internet banking or travel services as well as videos and voice telephony. Think 20 years into the future and an airline may be no more than a widely recognised Web site through which you buy tickets on aircraft operated by amorphous conglomerations of what were previously airlines and entirely owned by leasing firms you don't even recognise. In the meantime, however, it is going to leave companies like Wharf with some hard choices to make. Do they want to be utilities or do they want to sell us services?