I’m a boy so I like diggers. Always have. There’s
something about giant machines moving large piles of dirt about the place
that’s just really cool. Man (always the male) versus nature, or some such.

If diggers are cool, tunnelling machines are even more
so. I left the UK before the Chunnel was built but remember watching with awe
as giant science fiction machine worms burrowed into the dirt under the Channel
and even shed a small tear when I read that the machines were entombed next to
the tunnel on completion. They’re simply too unwieldy to remove.

The New Zealand Herald carried a piece on our own
tunnel project and the machines that are coming from China to carry out the
work. Despite the gushing prose, this isn’t something we have “never seen
before in New Zealand” unless you exclude the Manapouri hydro scheme but it is
really quite impressive nonetheless.

This project will take two years and will dig a
motorway under Auckland from Owairaka to Waterview, a distance of 4.5km. The
cost estimate is a cool $1.4bn.

By now you’re probably wondering why I’m prattling on
about digging a tunnel. We need to ship things about the place, we have a lack
of rail infrastructure and the roads are really all we’ve got for moving goods
and people around Auckland, so the theory goes, which means more roads.

I drive a lot and I don’t have a problem with more
roads. I know that doesn’t exactly tick the green credentials box, but Auckland
is already a basket case for transport and having spent five years riding a
scooter to work (and being killed twice) unless we make some fairly dramatic
changes to the roads, rail and ferry infrastructure, cars are really the only

By now you’ll see where this is going. The Southern Cross
Cable, Pacific Fibre, the new Trans-Tasman cable and all the rest cost far less
than this tunnel, yet they’re not seen as economic drivers, but a drain on the
public purse, so they’re left to the private sector to undertake.

The economic lift from building a second NZ-US cable
has not been determined. Will it add anything? Will the UFB add anything? We’ve
got general figures from equipment makers that talk up just how much such
services add to the economy but there’s been little work done on it by anyone
other than those with a vested interest. I’d like to see some numbers please,
because if we can pour $1.4bn into a hole in the ground, surely $400m for a
cable that will help us present New Zealand as a content hub rather than a
content consumer would be money well spent.

A trans-Tasman tunnel, hurrah!

(with apologies to Harry Harrison)

Telecom , Vodafone and Telstra have announced plans to build
a trans-Tasman submarine cable. While it’s only a memo of understanding (MoU)
at this point, the $70m build probably will go ahead as it makes good business

However it does make it more difficult to build a direct
NZ-US cable in the future, under the current conditions.

Today, New Zealand is a net importer of data. Most of our
surfing takes us off-shore. Traditionally this has meant the US but with an
increase in the number of Content Distribution Networks (CDNs) in Australia
hosting more of the content we’re after, that’s changing somewhat. Building a
cable heading across the Tasman that way means we’ll have more capacity and
potentially more competition on a vital trade route.

TUANZ has long argued that we need more capacity on the
international leg for two reasons. Firstly, to provide a competitive market and
secondly so we can end our role as net importer of data and become an exporter
of data. I’d like to see mega data centres set up in New Zealand becoming the
hub of all things content-related. I’d like to see us hosting data rather than
accessing it offshore and that means more pipes to the outside world.

A trans-Tasman pipe means we’re more likely to continue
accessing content that’s already stored in Australia and so strengthen
Australia’s role as the local hub. I can see a future where the Southern Cross
Cable has expired and any replacement is a direct link from Australia to the US
rather than via New Zealand. That would condemn us to a world where data
connections to North America have to go the long way round, increasing latency
issues and ping times and decreasing our desirability as a destination for
hosting content.

So we have mixed views on the idea of a Tasman cable, as you
can see.

Having said that, we’re very keen to understand how the
cable will be wholesaled, how Telecom’s role as shareholder in both competing
cables will work and just where the cable will land in New Zealand. Currently
fibre landing zones dictate the cable will come in to Whenuapai on Auckland’s
west coast, but as that’s part of an active volcanic field, I’d hope the
government would step up and suggest some alternatives, without adding a
massive cost to the project. It’s important we have diversity on our
international leg – currently we can survive breaks on the cable itself but an
event in Auckland would mean no international connectivity for a very long

Telecom, Telstra and Vodafone are holding a press conference
in half an hour – I’ll add anything from that once we’ve heard more.



One issue remains to be resolved with the concept of New Zealand becoming a data centre for content and that’s latency.

We live in a remote corner of the world at least what, 120ms away from our nearest large market (sorry Australia – I’m talking about the US) and unless faster than light quantum computing becomes a reality in the near future, we’re not going to change that.

Latency affects all manner of services. Voice calls are notoriously impacted by lag, as is video calling and computer gaming. Too much lag will cause your secure VPN to fall over and that makes online banking or other reputation-aware services problematic.

But what can we do that isn’t time sensitive in such a way? YouTube for example, or streaming long-form movies – an activity that accounts for anywhere between a quarter and half of all US domestic traffic. What about Dropbox-like services or most of the new range of cloud computing activities (this blog, for example, is hosted by a company based in New York but I haven’t the faintest idea where the data is stored).

As Kim Dotcom said to NBR, HTML5 means multi-threaded downloads and uploads which means aside from the initial connection, lag isn’t an issue for services like web browsing, music or movie streaming or any of the rest of it. Local content caching is becoming the norm for such data and New Zealand could easily take a place in that market.

There is no reason any of those kinds of data can’t be stored locally and served to the world – the only impediments are a lack of competition on the international leg and a willingness to go out and sell that capability to the world.

Our distance to market has always been seen as a negative – let’s make it a positive. We’re remote, we’re stable, we’re “uninvadable” by anyone who might object to freedom of information and we have cheap, renewable energy. Give us a new cable and we won’t have to worry about the negotiations between Tiwai smelter and the power companies and New Zealand will be a net exporter of data and that means money.