Crown Fibre's high hopes

Milner not shying away from earlier cost estimates north of $5.3 billion

Simon Allen, the newly appointed chairman of Crown Fibre Holdings, admits he is no technology expert, but says he believes in the power of "enabling" infrastructure such as fibre-optic cable to transform economies.

The 51-year-old Aucklander, a former chairman of the New Zealand Exchange, will head the four-man board that will oversee the Government's $1.35 billion investment in fibre.

"I am very attracted to anything that leads to better productivity for New Zealanders, and this comes under that broad category of infrastructure spending that might not otherwise be done by the private sector in the same timeframe.

"If you look through history around the world, a lot of those things have helped economies grow at faster rates than otherwise."

He says it is too early to comment on the structure of Crown Fibre Holdings, how many staff it will employ or where it will be based. "The board is yet to meet on the structure that we need. In the meantime, we are fully supported by the Economic Development Ministry, their consultants and their employees."

His fellow directors are telecommunications consultant Dr Murray Milner, barrister Michael Dean and outgoing TrustPower chief executive Keith Tempest.

Allen says the directors know each other, but haven't worked as a group before.

Milner says he thought hard before taking up the directorship.

"It is going to be challenging". But fibre to the home "has to happen", he says. "The only issue is when and how. Hopefully, through the processes that have been put in place, we are going to be able to deliver all that we would like to."

Milner has forecast the likely cost of rolling out fibre-optic cable using the government's preferred technology at $5.3 billion to $10.4 billion.

He is not shying away from that estimate, but says that with the support of local authorities, the bill could come in at the lower end of the range.

"If we can't get it in the low end, it is going to be difficult to swallow, so we have got to put a lot of effort into that."

A former chief technology officer at Telecom, Dr Milner says there will be a different set of challenges, depending on whether the company is involved.

"I hope that there can be ways found that Telecom can participate in some way." He was not aware of any conversations under way.

Unusually for a new billion-dollar venture, Crown Fibre Holdings' success should be measured by the brevity of its life span.

If the ultrafast broadband initiative meets its objectives, the company should wither as private-sector partners in local fibre companies buy out taxpayers' investment in fibre.

Allen laughs that it is early days to be thinking about the end game.

"The policy spans out over 10 years. I'd like to think we were addressing those issue now, but it is a fair way away."

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