The year ahead

Looking ahead, this year is going to be quite a busy one in terms of telecommunications, so I hope you all had a good rest of the new year break.

Normally I head off to the Coromandel to a secret location where I pitch a tent, make do without running water or electricity and where my phone (and everyone else’s) simply fails to find a signal.

This is fantastic because it means I am completely cut off from my normal life and rest is guaranteed. We kayak, we swim, we eat well, and while the kids can run around all night if they want, I go to bed and rise with the sun.

It’s a chance to switch off, to renew my batteries (as it were) and to do something completely removed from my normal existence and I love it.

But if I had to live like that every day, I’d go nuts. Running water and electricity are pretty key, but as the owners of the farm where I stay have pointed out, the need for decent telecommunications is critical.

They have a 15 year old son who can’t call his friends, can’t play games, can’t do any homework, can’t read newspapers or go online in any way shape or form for the entire time he’s at home. The exchange is too far away for DSL to work well and besides, the cabinet is full. There’s no cellphone signal from any provider and oddly not a single wireless ISP operates on the north eastern side of the Coromandel. Why? I have no idea.

This summer has been the last straw for him and he’s declared that as soon as he’s able he’ll be off to the city or at least to an internet café that can let him connect to the world.

It’s not just him – all of rural New Zealand faces this challenge and we urbanites face it with them. If we lose the rural communities we lose so much of what makes New Zealand unique. It’s not just a cultural thing, it’s the basis for our entire economy as well. Boost our farmers’ productivity by a couple of percent and we’ll all be better off.  Reduce their ability to compete (as we’re surely doing for those that don’t have access) and the inverse will also be true.

Rural broadband must be a key priority for the year ahead. However, the key component of delivering such connectivity – spectrum – is already being sorely tested.

Both Vodafone and Telecom are fighting over the remaining pair of 5MHz spectrum in the 700MHz range and, if the rumours are to be believed, are already bidding more for that pair than both bid for the 15MHz blocks they’ve already bought. Why? Because the government has decreed that the remaining block must be sold off and neither company can afford to allow the other to win, hence the price war.

This is ridiculous.

Both companies already have more than enough 700MHz spectrum and neither particularly wanted to bid for the last block.

Both companies have plenty of spectrum in the sub-1000MHz range that can be re-purposed for future network technologies and which could be readily deployed in rural New Zealand but because of the government’s greed and short-sightedness (there’s really no other way to look at it), they’re forced to spend money on a piece of paper instead of on rural cellsites.

The Commerce Commission has to grant permission for the winner to have so much spectrum so I have high hopes it’ll do the right thing and refuse to give the go-ahead.  All three telcos will be relieved if that’s the outcome – Telecom, 2Degrees and Vodafone – because the alternative is one player wins the 4G battle but at such a huge cost.

Which brings us to the question of government and the upcoming election. I’m told the likely date is November but it’s up to the Prime Minister to decide, which means it could be earlier if he sees an advantage to going sooner rather than later.

And there may well be an advantage in that. Currently Labour have yet to announce many of its policies and are lagging behind in the polls. The Greens have always had a strong ICT policy (its views on cellphones and cellsites notwithstanding) and the other minor parties are starting to display a keen interest, possibly as a result of the Chorus debacle.

And then there’s Kim Dot Com and the Internet Party.

Putting aside personality for a moment, I’ve long wondered why we don’t have a tech-focused party. MMP lends itself to such issue-led parties and I’m surprised we haven’t seen more of them. The Greens are a perfect example: why not ICT as well?

The question of course making the numbers will be determined by the policies of the Internet Party and we have yet to see those, but I am heartened by any party that raises the profile of ICT issues and if nothing else, the other politicians will have to improve their understanding of ICT to compete and that’s no bad thing.

The final issue on the table must be our lack of international connectivity. I have high hopes that 2014 will see an end to this idea that we are fine and that another cable isn’t needed. One of the various projects has to get off the ground this year and I hope it will see us connected to the US rather than Australia. If we’re to build an ICT industry in New Zealand to rival dairy farming we need to have that connection to the US – anything less will see us become an offshoot of Australia and we might as well give up our sovereignty at that point and become a second Tasmania.

What are the other issues you’d like to see on the agenda this year? You’ll note I haven’t included Chorus and there’s a reason for that. The problem and the resolution lie within Chorus itself and it’s up to the company now to figure out how to complete its contractual obligations. If it can’t, then no doubt we’ll talk more but for now the ball is firmly in Chorus’s court and I trust there it will remain until the company comes to its senses.