Opinion: What's the vision, Minister Joyce?

It's time for an ICT strategy, argues Sarah Putt

Further announcements as to what companies will partner the government in the Ultra Fast Broadband network are now overdue. To date prospective partners in three regions – Timaru, central North Island and Whangarei - have been identified, but negotiations have not (as far as we know) been completed.

However, there is still nothing on who will partner in the big cities such as Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

Meanwhile the regulatory landscape is in such turmoil that the Telecommunications Commissioner took a swipe at the Ministry of Economic Development in its submission to a discussion paper on structural separation.

The town versus country divide is widening as Federated Farmers up their rhetoric on wanting more government money to fund rural broadband infrastructure.

Then there is Telecom. It is one of the stalwarts of the national stock exchange, an exchange which could be sinking without trace in the light of a possible merger between the Australian and Singapore exchanges. Telecom’s share price is hovering around the paltry $2 mark, as it tries to do business in a state of uncertainty while a small government agency decides its fate.

It is an awful scenario. The fibre network is supposed to increase productivity, to boost New Zealand’s export opportunities. But when Rod Drury – one of the country’s leading entrepreneurs — stands up at an industry conference, as he did at the TUANZ Rural Broadband Symposium — and asks “where’s the vision”, you have to stand back and ask, well, where is it?

Drury has got together with proven business people to build an international cable and they have put together, in less than eight months since going public with the idea, a viable business case. Drury says that the commercial model they have created means it’s likely they will have to base the project in Australia and this will mean they have to charge for international connectivity in the traditional way.

What Pacific Fibre want to do is charge per connection, not by capacity. In doing so they hope to reduce the need for data caps. To do this they require government assistance, probably in the form of a taxpayer contribution. It is tempting to view Drury and his cofounders as simply putting their hand out, but are they?

That is not how it strikes me. I think Drury, Sam Morgan and Stephen Tindall – the three high profile entrepreneurs backing this project – want to do the best by ‘NZ Inc’.

But ICT Minister Steven Joyce dismissed Drury’s plea out of hand.

Joyce is considered a shrewd operator. He is widely seen as the Prime Minister’s right-hand man. He has been dubbed The Minister of Everything.

By all accounts telecommunications should be in safe hands. He is clearly well-qualified and more than capable of creating a vision for his ICT portfolio, so where is it?

A commitment to creating a fibre network for 75 percent of premises passed in 10 years and 97 percent of schools being connected to fibre in six years, is a not a vision – it is a tactical goal.

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