An appointment with the Minister

Computerworld discusses a range of hot-button issues in technology with ICT Minister Amy Adams

Invited to interview ICT Minister Amy Adams at her Beehive office, Computerworld took the opportunity to discuss a range of hot-button issues in technology. In contrast to her predecessor in the portfolio, Steven Joyce — who has a laconic style laced with the occasional wry aside - Adams is intense. A fast talker, she has a crisp common-sense approach. It’s almost impossible to imagine her as anything other than what she is — a lawyer from Canterbury who’s become a cabinet minister in a National government.

When asked what her view of the local IT industry is, she describes it as “tending to be characterised by the ‘three guys in a garage as opposed to the big entity”.

Having held the ICT portfolio for eight months she has concluded that the IT sector tends to “fly under the radar a little bit”.

Even so, there will be no leg-up in the form of a ‘buy Kiwi made’ clause in government IT contracts, at least if she has any say in it. Companies should stand on their own merits, and positive discrimination is, well, a negative, according to Adams.

“I never wanted to be chosen for a job because I was a woman; I expected to get there because I could do the job just as well as anyone else. It’s a bit the same,” she says.

Adams does acknowledge that the request for proposal process can be “very expensive”, and one solution is to create pre-approved supplier panels, so the onerous work of proving capability is only done once. She cites the government Infrastructure as a Service panel with Revera, Datacom and IBM.

“When we look at how much of the [government ICT] spend does go to New Zealand companies it is higher than people realise. They have this impression that it all goes offshore, which just isn’t correct. But what I’d like to see is more use of some of the smaller, niche, clever things that allow people to get a win on the CV,” she says, mentioning the Budget 2012 app developed by Wellington-based studio PaperKite.

Adams says part of her role is championing local IT companies in cabinet, and overseas. During a recent trip to Korea she met the president of Samsung Electronics and was concerned to discover he was “reasonably unaware” of the New Zealand IT sector.

“I was very keen to push with him that we have this amazingly creative IT industry that isn’t looking to replicate the mass production of the Samsungs but is looking to supplement what they do. And when you think this company is making 400 million cellphone screens a year, we only need a tiny little part of that business and it’s huge.”

The other side of her portfolio – telecommunications – is a little harder to overlook. Although the telco industry might wish that Adams would.

There is her push towards better product disclosure on broadband services which could result in regulation, despite the Telecommunications Carriers Forum launching a working party with a view to creating a Broadband Product Disclosure Code.

There’s the threat to regulate – together with her counterpart in Australia, senator Stephen Conroy – on trans-Tasman mobile roaming.

And there’s the fact that it’s her job to make sure the government-backed fibre projects, Ultra Fast Broadband and the Rural Broadband Initiative, are a success. So what’s her view of Chorus announcing at its annual result that it had only connected 200 premises, has just 2000 contractors working on UFB - any concerns?

“No, not really. Our total connection numbers under UFB are sitting at around 1400 and we always said it would be slow and gradual, given that we only really ramped up to the full speed in the last few months of last year. And what we know is that most of the big products aren’t in the market yet. You haven’t got Telecom in the market, or Vodafone.”

Maybe they are waiting for a decision on whether a standard Chorus installation should be extended beyond 15 metres as it is with the Local Fibre Cos?

“I don’t believe that’s stopping any connections, because all of them right now are offering Retail Service Providers a free connection while we work through solving the issue.”

Whether that means Chorus, the RSP, the end-user and/or the taxpayer will end up paying to ensure the premises in the Chorus UFB area are connected on the same terms as areas covered by Northpower, Enable and Ultra Fast Fibre, Adams would not say.

“When it’s announced every one will be reasonable relaxed about it,” she assures Computerworld.

Arguably the most significant decision Adams will undertake this term is how to divvy up the 700MHz spectrum – which, when it is cleared following the switch over to digital television, will be valuable to telcos planning the next generation of mobile services.

There had been an expectation that a proposal about allocation would have gone to cabinet already, but Adams is now saying that’s likely to happen next year. She denies there has been any delay and maintains the process is on track so that spectrum will be allocated ahead of the time it will be available for use, from December 2013.

However, Adams does concede that a settlement with Treaty of Waitangi claimants to the spectrum – which was part of National’s confidence and supply agreement with the Maori Party – has not met its May deadline.

Computerworld asked if the hold up was because the deal might not be with the Te Huarahi Trust – the commercial arm of which, the Hautaki Trust, has a 10 percent stake in 2degrees – but rather with another group of Maori who lodged the original claim?

“You’re getting ahead of yourself,” Adams says. “That’s exactly the negotiations we have to have in terms of what’s appropriate in any sense. Whether it’s spectrum or not is still to be decided. I think it’s a bit early to speculate on, if there was spectrum, which entity in Maoridom would hold it.”

Adams repeated what Joyce told Computerworld last year – that National does not accept that spectrum is a taonga. It's also unlikely that National will follow the precedent set by Labour during the 3G settlement (when Te Huarahi Trust benefitted), because Adams says she is taking a "freah approach."

Although broadcasting is not part of her portfolio, it is Adams’ responsibility to oversee the broadcasting spectrum. She says in that spectrum there are 11 sets of 8MHz band paired and each set is capable of carrying 10 standard definition channels or three high definition channels.

Five of those sets are controlled by State Owned Enterprises including Kordia and TVNZ, as well as Maori TV and the New Zealand Racing Board.

When asked if there exists a set that is directly government controlled Adams referenced the eleventh set for analogue conversion commitments, a “wash up set”.

So there is nothing directly government owned? “That’s not our model,” she says. “Commercial entities are generally held by SOEs.”

Adams also has some oversight into cybersecurity and she says that a national cybersecurity office has been set up with a unit inside the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, in recognition of its importance and its all-of-government impact.

“While the prime minister has ultimate responsibility for all the security aspects I have still the responsibility for the policy work but the disconnection of those two previously was not ideal so I think this is a far better way of doing it.”

We touched on the possiblity of a national chief technology officer (Adams is not entirely adverse to the idea), whether Kordia should own Orcon (not her portfolio), the TelstraClear sale to Vodafone (can’t comment while it’s before the Commerce Commission) and the demise of Pacific Fibre (welcomes another international link but no government funding at this time).

And then our time was up, Adams had to rush upstairs to a committee. Computerworld was shown the door and left to find our way out of the Beehive alone.

A full transcript of the interview can be found here.

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