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.

Election wish list for a digital economy


Dear politicians,

You’re heading into an election cycle (actually, if I think
about it, you’re always in an election cycle) so here are some things we at
TUANZ would like to see in your policy portfolio.

They’re in no particular order and we’ve mentioned some of
them before but it’s worth getting them all in one list for you to peruse.

1: International cable made a priority

Let’s be blunt – there’s no capacity problem on the Southern
Cross cable, and as a user of international capacity New Zealand isn’t that big
a customer. But we’d like to see the next government offer a significant amount
of support for any new cable operator because more cables mean more choice and
more opportunity for the broader ICT industry.

We’d like to see New Zealand become a regional hub for
content and in order to do that we need to have more cables. NZ to Sydney, NZ
to LA, NZ to Japan, NZ to South Africa, anywhere and everywhere. That all costs
money and it’s the sort of “roads of future significance” spend that only a
government can drive.

Our potential in the digital economy can only be achieved if
we have the connections to the rest of the world and that means stepping up.
I’d be looking for at least $100m of commitment in one form or another to make
a second and third cables a reality.

2: Commerce Commission given back its role as regulator

This is essential. Stuffing about with our regulator means a
lack of investor confidence and that means we as an economy stall in the

An independent regulator, working to a set of rules that we
all know about in advance is the only way to achieve investor confidence in the
sector. You mess with that role at your peril – customers don’t like it,
investors don’t like it and the participants in the industry don’t like it at
all. It’s poor practice and should be shunned.

3: ICT training emphasis increased – ICT courses added to
schedule of those we value

We need to encourage our youth to take up the ICT skills
we’ll need to build this digital economy. At the moment there is little
emphasis placed on any of the IT or telco related disciplines and that has to
change. Government needs to signal that it wants more computer science
students, but also designers, network managers, even cable layers and jointers.
We don’t have the resources in New Zealand today to roll out the UFB
efficiently, if Chorus’s costs are anything to go by, and part of that is
because of the lack of emphasis on this sector in the education market.

Government should make it easy for the kids to pick up these
skills and to realise that ICT is a viable career choice for them.

4: : Support for Pt England/Manaiakalani Trust deployment on
broad scale

All of which starts at a much earlier point in the education
system than we have today.

One Google software engineer discovered Vietnamese primary
school children learning the basics of coding
at age nine. The story of
Vietnam’s move into ICT is a compelling one and while we’d probably struggle to
reach the level they have today, we have a tremendous opportunity to learn from
both the Vietnamese example and from our own Pt England Primary School.

As you know, Pt England equips its older children with
netbooks and ensures that all classes make use of these devices as an
integrated part of the curriculum. The results are astonishing, yet we still
have not rolled out a national programme to encourage this kind of thinking.

That is the role for the Ministry of Education and I’d like
to see the next government take the Pt England model and roll it out nationwide.

Don’t forget, Pt England is a Decile 1 school – its parents
are among some of the poorest in New Zealand, yet they realise the benefits of
these devices and can see the improvement in their children’s education. It’s
time we all got on board.

5: Government as the country’s largest buyer of ICT

No other sector buys as much technology as the government,
in all its forms. Why aren’t we encouraging small New Zealand businesses to bid
for contracts? Why isn’t there a clause in every government tender that says
New Zealand companies get priority? Everyone else favours their own products,
why are we so shy about it?

One.Govt is the government project to streamline the
tendering process, yet all too often I hear horror stories of local developers
being shut out of the process.

Take the IRD computer system as an example. The figure of
$1.5bn has been bandied about – an astonishing figure – but imagine what that
spend could do to the local software industry if it was spent on New Zealand
owned and operated companies. Wouldn’t that give us a kick start like nothing
we’ve ever seen? Start talking to the NZ Rise guys to find out how to encourage their members.

6: Content inquiry

It’s high time the government of the day realise the
elephant in the UFB room isn’t the price of copper but the lack of high
bandwidth services that consumers want.

Currently we have two or three relatively small players
offering content locally and that’s not enough to drive demand. We need to see
if there are any impediments to providing content online, and we need
government to get in behind this key driver for uptake.

6: UFB review

We need to understand whether this project is working as it
should, whether the right governance structure is in place and whether the
whole project is being gamed. Currently we face cost blow-outs, low uptake,
expensive and unpleasant installation processes and a raft of other issues that
limit both consumer and retail providers’ interest in the UFB.

It’s too important a project to be allowed to glide gently
off the rails like this – we need to make sure the UFB delivers on its

7: RBI review

Similarly, we cannot allow rural New Zealand to become a
backwater. It’s high time we started talking about RBI 2.0 and what that means.

Under today’s regime fully one quarter of the population
won’t ever get fibre to the home. Of all the countries in the world –  dependent as we are on the primary sector for
our income – we need to solve this problem. Cost is a major issue, naturally,
but we can’t rest on our laurels with a two-tier internet where I can get
100Mbit/s symmetrical but the backbone of the economy has to make do with a
peak speed of 5Mbit/s.

89: Regional economic development plan off back of UFB and

We need to encourage people to move to New Zealand and we
need to encourage more New Zealanders to live anywhere but Auckland.

I say this as a JAFA and as an import. I’m here in the city
of sails (don’t mention the sailing) because that’s where the work is, but for
most of us knowledge workers we could and should be based elsewhere.

The UFB and RBI should mean we can all work from Hamilton,
Whangarei, Whanganui, Invercargil or just about anywhere else we care to name.
Coromandel springs to mind. Let us dream of what might be seen in Johnsonville
and Geraldine
, because we run the risk of becoming a giant version of the
smaller Pacific Island nations – one city and a collection of under-resourced

10: Reform of infrastructure consent process

To build this shiny future we need a shiny network and all
too often I hear about projects being delayed because of problems with the
consent process.

Roads are supposed to be utility corridors, yet all too
often the roads get dug up and re-laid without any thought given to UFB

Cellphone towers are in desperate short supply in rural New
Zealand yet in urban centres deployment can be held up by local NIMBYs and
their unsupported science of fear.

We need to grow up, realise the benefits these technologies
bring, and make them a priority.

Ten items designed to raise our standard of living and to
ensure you get at least one more vote (mine) if not a few more besides.

What else would you like to see in a political party’s ICT