The New Regime:
Under the Telecommunications Act 2019, responsibility for regulation of domestic telecommunications operations has passed from government ministry to the Competition & Regulatory Authority. At the same time, this legislation has provided for the termination of Telecom Cook Islands Limited’s long standing monopoly provision of telecommunication services, and for the introduction of competition. (The company now trades under the name Vodafone Cook Islands.)
The Authority’s role is to enable competition by licensing new players to provide telecommunications services, and to regulate competitive activity and consumer protection in accordance with internationally recognized competition law principles.
In addition, the Authority manages the Country’s radiocommunications spectrum, by assigning the use of particular radio frequencies to those providing wireless communications, and by authorizing the use of particular radiocommunications apparatus.
Services Licensing Policy
Licensing of Avaroa Cable Limited
The new era of significantly improved telecommunications in Cook Islands, commenced with the arrival in 2020 of the Manatua international undersea optic fiber communications cable. The full potential for the Country of the massive capacity of this cable will be released as traffic begins to flow both East and West for Cook Islands, and as existing local infrastructure is improved, or newly installed by new service providers.
For more information about the cable and the government owned Avaroa Cable Limited (ACL)
The Authority has licensed ACL to provide wholesale telecommunications services to all parties authorized to provide downstream telecommunications services to the public. ACL itself is not permitted to provide retail services.
The terms and conditions of ACL’s licence can be viewed here.
Licensing of Vodafone Cook Islands
Vodafone Cook Islands, (VCI) is the trading name of Telecom Cook Islands Limited. As at 1 March 2021, the Company remains the sole service provider actively providing mobile telephony services in the Country.
For more information about the Company and its services go to vodafone.co.ck.
VCI’s current licence has been conferred by Parliament, in Schedule 2 of the Telecommunications Act 2019. Its terms and conditions can be viewed here.
Licensing of new service providers
The introduction of customer choice in Cook Islands telecommunications has commenced with the authority’s issue of four internet service provider (ISP) licences. However, this kind of licence does not allow ISP networks to carry fixed or mobile number calls. ISP customers can nonetheless use their devices to communicate via ‘over-the-top’ (OTT) internet applications such as Zoom, Skype, Facetime, etc., provided both call parties deploy the same application. These services are therefore less expedient than voice calls and SMS messages which can be delivered to any fixed or mobile number domestically and internationally.
There is no restriction on the number of new ISP licensees, anyone interested starting up such a business should contact the Chair of the Authority.
The details of the new ISPs and the terms and conditions of their licences can be viewed here.
The commencement of operations by all four licensees has been severely affected by the travel and supply restrictions arising from the Covid 19 pandemic.
Questions around the authorization of a second mobile telephony operator are addressed below.
Universal Access Plan and Second Mobile
Subsidizing loss-making telecommunications services at remote locations
Alongside the introduction of competition in the form of new service providers, the statutory regime includes provisions for promoting the availability of telecommunications services of a reasonable quality, for all the Country’s Pa Enua populations.
One of the historical justifications for having a monopoly telecommunications provider, as VCI has been up to now, is that a single network enabled the cost of deploying expensive infrastructure at remote locations, to be spread across all the network’s users.
The nature and scope of this significant cross subsidy between user groups remained opaque to the community at large however. Moreover, the monopoly provider situation inherently excludes the impact of dynamic and productive efficiencies on a sole provider’s operations. These are amongst the reasons why competition in telecommunications service provision is now the preferred policy around the world, even for ensuring service at remote areas.
Pending the Authority’s adoption of something different for promoting “universal access” for Cook Islanders, in the form of a new statutory Universal Access Plan (UAP), the provisions of section 120 of the Act, will continue to compel VCI to provide services to the Pa Enua at the current levels. That obligation endures until November 2023, unless it is replaced earlier than that by applicable provisions of the Authority’s UAP.
The Authority will commence consultation on its initial UAP in March 2021. Because VCI has continuing obligations to the Pa Enua for the time being, and because the local and international economic environment arising from the Covid 19 pandemic is so uncertain, it is to be expected that the first annual UAP will need to be a ‘plan to have a plan’.
Second mobile telephony operator licence
As part of the transitional arrangements devised for VCI giving up its exclusive licence, there is to be only one additional mobile telephony licence available before the fourth anniversary of the new legislation, which is November 2023. After that, there is no restriction on the number. The criteria for the award of a second full service mobile licence are determined by the Minister on the recommendation of the Authority.
The emergence of a second full service mobile competitor to VCI, and the impact of the less direct competition offered by ISP licensees, are fundamental factors in the design of a successful UAP. This is because competitors are likely to approach new infrastructure installation and service provision in novel ways. In addition, there can be competing bids for providing subsidized service to Pa Enua. Accordingly, the Authority intends to address both issues in tandem.
Public consultation on the UAP and Second Licence will commence in late March 2021.
Radio Spectrum and Technical Matters
- Radiocommunications spectrum management
- Internet Domain administration
- Technical standards
- Consumer protection