Our history

A brief summary of radiocommunication regulations in New Zealand.

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Where we started

In 1865, Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell demonstrated the theory of electromagnetic energy for the first time. This energy became known as radio waves.

Henrich Hertz confirmed Maxwell's theory in 1888. Hertz caused an electric discharge between two metal balls, which he then projected across to a wired loop detection apparatus.

In 1895, Guglielmo Marconi realised the communication possibilities of artificially generated radio waves. After the Italian Government dismissed his work, he found a backer in the British Government.

In 1899 Marconi sent his first message across the English Channel. By 1901 he had spanned the Atlantic. However, the technology was primitive and the concept of frequency management as a way to enable simultaneous radiocommunications was still unrealised.

The start of radiocommunication regulations

The first official mention of radiocommunication in New Zealand was in 1902. Mariners were notified of a list of stations established by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph company. None of the stations were in the southern hemisphere, however.

The Government took control of the new technology by passing the New Zealand Wireless Telegraphy Act in 1903. Under the Act, only the Government could use it.

In 1908, Sir Joseph Ward sent the first wireless message in NZ.

In 1909 the Government decided to establish a number of marine radio coast stations. The first began operating in 1911.

The frequency of early radio transmitters and receivers could not be controlled. As such, only one wireless communication at a time could take place in any given geographical area.

After the Titanic sunk in 1912, it became clear that a management framework for radio transmission and reception was necessary. Although the upper range of frequencies was unknown, a concept grew where:

  • the radio spectrum could be used as a public and economic resource, and
  • licensing (the generation of radio waves) could be a management tool for preventing radio interference.

The NZ Government established regulations to:

  • protect their revenue
  • organise and allocate frequencies to prevent interference.

The beginning of broadcasting in New Zealand

In 1907 a device was developed which detects and amplifies weak electrical signals. This became known as radio telegraphy. The military used it during World War One.

In 1920, the Post and Telegraph Amendment Act allowed for receivers to be licensed independently to transmitters. This set the scene for broadcasting as we know it.

The first instance of broadcasting in New Zealand was in 1921. It was an unlicensed transmission of gramophone recordings from a room in Wellington. The first licenced broadcast occurred later that year. A professor at Otago University transmitted a number of concerts.

The first licenced radio station began broadcasting in 1922, at a wavelength of 275 metres. In 1923 the Government developed regulations which:

  • divided the country into regions
  • specified frequencies and transmitter powers
  • banned advertising.

1YA was the first station licensed under the new regulations.

Private stations flourished in the 1920s and 30s. The Broadcasting Act 1936, and the National Broadcasting Service, saw the Government buy all but two private stations by the beginning of World War II.

The beginning of telecommunication in New Zealand

The early development of radio use grew out of experimentation by radio amateurs. The Government took these learnings and established a short-wave radio-telegraph link with Apia in 1927.

In 1930, a public radio-telephone service between Australia and New Zealand opened. This service linked with the Australia to UK service in 1931.

World War II saw further developments in technology. Interest in the communication possibilities of VHF intensified.

The first global telecommunication satellite network, INTELSAT, came into being in 1965.

The development of our spectrum management framework

Until 1987, spectrum management in New Zealand evolved under a centralised, administered system. The New Zealand Post Office (NZPO) administered the system.

While NZPO had a monopoly on providing telecommunication services, radio licences were granted on a ‘first come first served’ basis.

This changed in 1987, when NZPO was split into three state-owned enterprises. Its regulatory functions, including radio spectrum management, transferred to the Department of Trade and Industry. They administered the radio spectrum under the Telecommunications Act 1987.

Late in 1987, a report by the Business Roundtable recommended a substantial reform of telecommunications. This led the Government to:

  • remove the statutory prohibition on competition with Telecoms network
  • request a review of policy options to ensure best use of the spectrum.

As a result, the Government commissioned a new report. It made 20 specific proposals for consideration. Cabinet agreed to adopt (in principle) a spectrum management regime providing for:

‘a mixture of administrated licences and the creation of property rights in the form of both spectrum products and spectrum bands enforceable by statute.’

As a result, the Radiocommunications Act came into effect in 1989.

See Our legislation for more information.

Radio auctions

In the months before the Act came into force, the Ministry of Commerce had been evaluating public submissions on UHF television, and engineering auction lots accordingly.

The first call of bids for tender for spectrum licences came three days after the legislation passed.

After a successful first auction, planning was well underway for a further two auctions. These were for:

  • the management rights for cellular services
  • AM and FM broadcasting licences.

The auction for AM and FM radio broadcasting licences was delayed a number of times due to claims before the Waitangi Tribunal. When the auction did go ahead, some nationwide frequencies were reserved for promoting of Māori language and culture.

An auction for frequencies in the 2GHz band was also deferred, pending a Waitangi Tribunal hearing. After considering the Tribunal report the Government allowed the auction to proceed. One block of frequencies was reserved for Māori economic development policies.

Changes to radiocommunication regulations

In 1994 the Ministry of Commerce released a public discussion paper on:

  • the Radio Communications Act, and
  • Government policies related to its use.

The Ministry of Commerce proposed a Radiocommunications Amendment Bill, which Cabinet agreed to. The Bill was drafted and approved for introduction to Cabinet in December 1997.

The Radiocommunications Amendment Act received Royal Assent in 2000. New Radiocommunications Regulations to support the act were made by Order-In-Council in 2001.

If you want to know more, read our Radiocommunications History in New Zealand publication.

Radiocommunications History in New Zealand [PDF, 2 MB]