Forum: For some, the wait for cheaper, faster broadband is endless

Network convergence means broadband's regulatory foundations need to be strong

Telecom recently added a useful tool to its website, allowing its internet customers to check when they will receive ADSL2+, now being rolled out across the land.

One reader contacted me recently in some dismay that he would have to wait until 2010. Then I typed in my own home address and found that, despite living on the fringe of Auckland in a high-density neighbourhood, I can’t expect ADSL2+ until 2012.

I know that Telecom is rolling out its cabinets and gear at a fair clip. The problem is, it should have started rolling them out three or four years ago.

Personally I’m sanguine about that. My needs are relatively simple. But I can’t help feeling we are still in broadband catch-up mode rather than streaking ahead compared with other countries.

But investment is, thankfully, happening, both in wired and in wireless networks. Telecom’s announcement last week that it would roll out a $574 million 3G network is great news as it will increase infrastructure competition between the two main mobile providers.

And, when I look across the ditch and see the tortuous evolution of Australia’s National Broadband Network (see page 19), which appears to be heading well off-course, I am thankful we laid some solid regulatory foundations before we started to build.

All of this, however, could be thrown up in the air at the election. We know what Labour has on offer but need to know more about the shape of the alternative being offered by National. This is even more important given National is planning to spend a lot more taxpayer money on its proposed fibre-to-the-home rollout.

We need to know more about how National’s network operator, sometimes referred to as FibreCo, will operate, who will control it and the environment in which it will operate.

On the face of it, National appears to be planning to rewrite our regulatory framework once again. Given the promised outcome, a state-of-the-art fibre infrastructure, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, even if it does put the kibosh on today’s more incremental efforts and delay fast broadband rollouts. At least we will have made the step-change to fibre.

But if that fibre is not properly regulated, we could find New Zealand’s burgeoning competitive telecommunications market shrivelling again. We could find ourselves locked in and being milked by the dominant provider of a network that will be used for a lot more than internet browsing.

If we do go to fibre, you see, the regulatory equation will be a lot more complicated, because we will be receiving a huge amount of our content down the wire as well.

In the recent Internet Debate on TVNZ’s 7 channel, Opposition communications spokesman Maurice Williamson said he couldn’t provide more detail on the regulatory model for a fibre network because he didn’t have access to the vast hordes of public servants that create these kinds of policies for Labour as the incumbent.

On one level that’s fair enough, but I can’t help thinking National should try harder. We have an important decision to make.

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