Joyce disappoints conference on broadband detail

Minister commits to open access and dark fibre

Government will be putting most of its $1.5bn broadband investment into dark fibre infrastructure, says ICT minister Steven Joyce; implying that the higher levels of broadband services will be left to private provider riding the fibre.

The interface might be at Level 2 or 3 of the communications stack, Joyce suggests, but in a later discussion with Computerworld he did not discount the possibility of some higher-level wholesale services. He declined to go into further details on the interface between the government-supported platform and the private-sector providers above it.

A firmer outline of the plan should be disclosed “in a few weeks”, he says. That will be put up to stakeholders for comment before being finalised.

In a very cautious address today to the Commerce Commission-sponsored conference “Broadband at a Crossroads”, currently in progress in Auckland, Joyce signalled early that there would be none of the detail of the government’s broadband plans that many of his audience were expecting.

He has renewed a commitment to open access to the dark fibre. Asked about rural services, he disclosed that the government has a separate fund in mind “modelled on the previous government’s Broadband Challenge".

Earlier this month Joyce pointedly discontinued the BIF. However, again, there was a lack of detail on its successor.

In response to questions from potential broadband providers, including NZ Communications chief Tex Edwards, Joyce acknowledged the difficulty of filling the gap between public demand and current telco investment and avoiding “chilling” future investment from those telcos or duplicating existing capacity.

“I make no apology for being cautious,” he said; “this is a big investment and we can’t afford to get it wrong.” He indicates that dialogue with the industry will continue and that those who want to steer the direction of the project will still have a chance to have their input.

“I will be providing details very soon — in the next few weeks — so the industry can provide feedback,” he said.

He talked up the value of broadband in “improving productivity and innovation” and its essential role in education of the rising generation. New Zealand starts from behind in that race, he said.

As a former small businessman, he pointed in particular to the potential of broadband in giving small and medium enterprises access to “big company services” — a nod to the cloud computing/SaaS model.

In answer to Matt Crockett of Telecom, Joyce said the government will continue to push through amendments to the Resource Management Act and other ways of easing regulatory impediments to the physical business of network deployment. More can be done to ensure consistent “environmental standards” nationwide in that respect, he said. Someone installing a network should not have to cope with different practices depending on which side of a local government boundary they are on.

This he sees as a significant difference between the policies of this government and a more cautious approach by the Labour-led government.

A Counties Power representative asked about a role for power distribution companies in the network set-up, and Joyce assured him there would be a role for any partner with a positive contribution to make.

Another key strategy will be persuading government agencies to come up with plans for productive use of broadband within and among themselves. Government can’t lecture the rest of the country on using broadband if it’s not setting an example itself, Joyce says.

When the moderator thanked him for accommodating a number of questions, Joyce commented wryly “I think when you read it back you’ll find [my responses] didn’t actually say anything.”

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