This post is a guest blog from Bill Bennett, Freelance Journalist
Broadband rarely gets discussed in the wider context of national infrastructure.
Yet the government-sponsored Ultrafast Broadband project and the Rural Broadband Initiative are just two of a series of major infrastructure projects transforming New Zealand cities.
To engineers there are two types of infrastructure. Vertical infrastructure means buildings while horizontal infrastructure means roads, railways, cycle tracks, water systems and communications networks.
Infrastructure makes cities liveable
Both kinds of infrastructure make places liveable. They underpin economic development.
In December Aecom New Zealand managing director John Bridgman gave me an insight into another way infrastructure investment is important when I interviewed him for the New Zealand Herald.
Bridgman talked about Auckland, but his comments apply just as much to other New Zealand cities.
Auckland ranks ten
He says the Economist Intelligence Unit ranks Auckland as number ten when it comes to the world’s most liveable cities.
The survey leaves out Wellington and Christchurch because it only applies to the world’s 140 largest cities. Even so, the ideas are relevant across the country.
On one level, the EIU liveable city index is just a set of numbers, an accounting exercise. We shouldn’t take it too seriously or read too much into the numbers.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t useful or important.
Liveable means investment
Cities that rank high in the EIU index attract high quality investment. They are magnets to the brightest and most dynamic immigrants. They are places people want to visit and where they are keen to do business.
Getting on the top ten list is an achievement. Staying there is helpful. Bridgman wants us to move up the list.
Building fast broadband networks throughout New Zealand will move us closer to that goal.
To rank cities the EIU looks at 30 measures in categories such as culture and healthcare. Infrastructure is one category.
Not perfect, not far off
Each category is marked out of 100. A perfect city would be 100. The scores are crunched to get a single number. Auckland’s score is 95.7. Melbourne is in top place on 97.5.
A 92.9 score for infrastructure drags down Auckland’s total. If we can nudge that figure up Auckland would move from the top 10 to the top five.
In turn that would mean more high quality investment, immigrants and business opportunities.
Infrastructure is an interesting category when it comes to determining whether a city is liveable because the people already living in a city can do something about it.
It’s near impossible to improve a city’s culture in the short-term. No-one can do much about the geographic setting once a city is founded. All the top cities are stable, safe and offer first class education, so there’s little room to move on those areas.
When assessing infrastructure the EIU looks at the quality of their road, public transport and telecommunications networks along with the international links. It also looks at the availability of good quality housing, energy and water.
Anyone familiar with Auckland knows our recent-year report for all those sub-categories is could-do-better.
The good news is that each area is being addressed. The Western Ring Road is not far from completion. Planning is under way for boosting the road network east of the city. There’s been a major water system upgrade.
Work to be done
There’s still work to be done building more good quality houses. Auckland’s electricity grid has been an embarrassment in the past, but things are changing. The next few years should see work begin expanding the rail network through the city. Other public transport projects are underway. They city is getting bike lanes.
And then there’s the broadband upgrade. At first sight it seems almost an afterthought.
Running fibre to every home and business in Auckland might add a few tenths of a point to the liveable city index score.
Where Australia lags
That might not seem much. Yet there are four Australian cities — Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Adelaide — ahead of Auckland in the EIU list. None of them will have full fibre to the premises networks soon.
Auckland will have its FTTP in place by the end of 2019.
Only 1.8 points separate Auckland from top ranked Melbourne. Auckland is only 0.2 behind Perth and 0.4 behind Sydney.
Finishing the UFB could push Auckland up two or three spots on the liveable city index. That alone gets us closer to the prize money. It’s an option Australia has rejected.
If those EIU numbers seem a little too dull and abstract to make sense, think of athletics. For an Olympic runner trimming two-tenths of a second can be the difference between a gold and a bronze medal.
As already mentioned, it’s important not to get too wrapped up in the details of one Liveable City Index. At best its criteria are debatable and there are other indexes that rank Auckland better or worse than the EIU.
Yet we can read the EIU index as a list of the work in front of New Zealand as we build a 21st century economy.
When the rest of the world catches up and builds fibre-to-the-premises networks, fast broadband will be a hygiene factor just like every other form of infrastructure. That is, something citizens expect and take for granted, something that will make them unhappy if it isn’t provided.
By then we’ll have something else to build to keep us out in front.
You can find this blog and other comments on Bill’s website at: www.billbennett.co.nz