Sparks fly at InternetNZ election debate

Steven Joyce pans Clare Curran's call for UFB review; Joyce acknowledges 'a lot of catch-up to be done' in government ICT

Opposition MPs attempted with partial success last night to divert ICT Minister Steven Joyce from his focus on fibre deployment and get him to acknowledge the need to talk about what practical benefits will accrue for the population as a result of the UFB and RBI fibre development.

InternetNZ managed to convene an unprecedented multi-party panel for its NetVision11 Election Debate. Joyce sparred often with Labour’s ICT spokesperson Clare Curran. The Greens fielded Gareth Hughes – ICT is his favourite portfolio of the nine he holds, he says. ACT put up Peter McCaffrey and the Maori Party rangatahi (youth) representative Kaapua Smith.

Discussion of uses for broadband led to a major debate on the convergence of broadcasting and internet content distribution and the SkyTV monopoly in the former. Labour’s policy, released earlier this week, supports consistent regulation for the two media streams, potentially opening up broadcasting to more competition in the same way as broadband. Joyce and McCaffrey, unsurprisingly, favour trust in the free market. “As soon as UFB is there, Sky will get competition,” Joyce promised. “The internet is international,” said McCaffrey and as soon as someone found a way to “monetize” distribution of TV content, it would flow into the country.

Curran asked Joyce directly “do you believe in convergence?” She told Computerworld (October 10) she was surprised that the minister had been so dismissive of the idea in his Q&A interview with us. Yes, convergence is self-evident in the success of services such as YouTube, Joyce replied “but does that mean we need to regulate it?” Democratisation of video and music content will happen regardless, he claims.

New Zealand’s lack of access to international content distribution services Netflix and Hulu was a persistent thread in the live discussion and on the parallel Twitter stream (#net11). McCaffrey in his laissez-faire stance didn’t understand the mechanisms that Sky has for locking in its suppliers – for example contracts including a ‘right of first refusal’ - said blogger and broadcaster Russell Brown on Twitter.

Joyce pointed to the broadband demand-side study conducted by the Commerce Commission – scheduled to present its findings in April next year. Curran retorted that a “study” hardly represents a commitment. Approached after the discussion, Joyce referred to the “five-point plan” enunciated in his speech to the Telecommunications Day conference (Computerworld May 19). Government’s priorities are still with “e-health” and “e-education”, he says, but also embraces e-government, e-business and an “e-development” component he acknowledges is hard to define.

Joyce claimed he is dealing with the practicalities of broadband access, which must be in place for the visions to be fulfilled; but without vision, practical implementation would be unproductive, said the left-leaning panel members. InternetNZ CEO Vikram Kumar had set the “vision” topic early, saying this was identified by one of his university lecturers (and student Kumar) as the most important attribute for a business leader to possess.

Joyce criticised Curran’s push for another look at the terms under which broadband is being provided. “We should get on and finish UFB,” he said. “Why would you want to stop the process?” A re-examination does not argue a total pause, Curran replied. The National government had held up broadband for two-and-a-half years while it rethought the plan, she said.

Lack of attention to local content and local access to international content is reckoned a major factor in the contentious copyright file-sharing legislation, also discussed at some length. If more content were legally available, said panel and audience members, there would be less illicit downloading.

Hughes said he had asked Commerce Minister and file-sharing bill sponsor Simon Power what he was doing about the lack of access to Netflix. Power didn’t seem to know what Netflix was, he said.

The threat of disconnection from the internet still hovers in the background of the current Copyright Act and was roundly condemned by most panellists and audience commentators. Curran and Hughes flagged the need for a more far-reaching revision of the whole concept of copyright under New Zealand law.

The need for a more digitally positive mood in the population at large, encouragement of digital skills and repairing the digital divide – or divides - overlaid the whole discussion. There are three distinct digital divides, says Curran; by age, by socio-economic status and by location “We have to address all three”.

This led to the topic of rural access and righting the inequalities in bandwidth planned to rural and urban populations under UFB and RBI. A Twitter correspondent suggested use of the 700 MHz spectrum freed by the switchoff of analogue TV to improve rural access. Rural broadband providers, Joyce said, have undertaken to provide fourth-generation mobile access – the medium for which the spare spectrum has been provisionally earmarked.

It is important that the auction process for the spectrum be conducted transparently, said Curran.

For closing the “divides”, McCaffrey placed faith in righting the economy first and thereby creating the environment for people and institutions to afford the technology; he hewed the ACT line persistently, saying government should back out of direct involvement in New Zealand’s internet.

Digital education and the continuation of digital skills from formal education to the workplace proved another significant theme. Labour will “elevate the importance of digital [technology and media] in education”, said Curran. Labour’s policy emphasises the need to “leverage the education system by ensuring every child has access to a [digital] device.” Joyce said the National government is developing “vocational pathways” to ensure continuity from education to the workplace.

Access to digital education, training and employment and the technology to support it also forms a significant strand of Maori Party policy, said Smith. She launched the party’s ICT policy as part of her presentation [see]

There was some discussion of the relative importance of teaching skills to use computers in everyday working life – a lot of people don’t know what control-F does,” said Hughes incredulously – and teaching “computer science” with the aim of encouraging the ability to develop digital exports. Both are needed, it was agreed.

Software developer Layton Duncan @polarbearfarm asked via Twitter how waste in government on the ICT front could be reduced. Curran said, as she did in Computerworld’s Q&A interview, that the Labour Party has “a general policy” to encourage government to invest in New Zealand’s innovative companies, many of whom specialise in economical open-source products. Hughes said there had been “some failures and some successes” in open-source implementation by governments and the Green party is in the process of “quantifying” the benefits.

Joyce acknowledged that there is “a lot of catch-up to be done” in government ICT; that some major projects have been undesirably delayed. There are “massive issues” with Inland Revenue developments such as the student loans project, he admitted. Part of the answer, Joyce said, is to make sure there is a “cluster of ministers” with the necessary ICT knowledge.

Software patents came in for some discussion, again with a large majority in support of their removal as under the current, second-reading, version of the Patents Bill. The delay to this bill came in for criticism, with rumours that it had been deliberately held back as potentially relevant to concessions that may be made as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

A key revelation of the evening: Steven Joyce has a Twitter account – showing zero tweets but 66 followers and 51 followees. “Gutted that @stevenljoyce is following [bloggers] @danylmc and @Imperatorfish and not me,” said Brown (@publicaddress).

And a morning-after comment from Clare Curran: “Did an #ict debate with @stevenljoyce last night. He had no plan. Labour did. #digitalnation.

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