Labour unveils ICT policy

UPDATED: Clare Curran responds to Tuanz concerns over UFB review; NZCS CEO Paul Matthews assesses Labour's proposals

Labour would remove the controversial ‘three-strikes’ internet account suspension clause of the Copyright Act within 90 days of taking office, according to a wide-ranging pre-election ICT policy statement. Labour also promises a new Copyright Bill within 18 months, a single regulatory body for broadcasting and telecommunications, and an independent review of the Ultra Fast Broadband (UFB) rollout.

The main policy commitments in the seven-point Digital Nation statement include:

1. Broadcasting and telecommunications

Public consultation towards a “single powerful regulator for telecommunications and broadcasting” to begin within six months. Investigation of a new Ministry of Communications and IT. The appointment of a “Chief Technical Advisor” who would produce technology roadmaps for New Zealand.

2. Broadband

An independent review of the UFB rollout process by an “international expert” to be completed by 30 June 2012. Completion of the fibre rollout in urban areas within the existing $1.35 billion investment fund held by Crown Fibre Holdings. Extension of the UFB rollout to “other areas of New Zealand where it can be deployed at similar costs,” but also subject to the $1.35 billion financial constraint.

3. Digital divide

Funding of research on how investment could have social and economic effects on the impact of the “digital age”. Increased funding for the Computer Clubhouses and Computers in Homes initiatives. Funding for 1,000 research and development internships nationwide.

4. Copyright

A full review of the Copyright Act with the aim of introducing a new Copyright Bill within 18 months. Removal from the Copyright Act of the internet account suspension penalty for infringing file sharing within 90 days.

5. Software patents

Enaction of a Patent Bill to exclude computer software from being patentable.

6. ‘Open software’ in government

A binding instruction to government agencies under the Public Finance Act which will include the following requirements:

* Software that government has paid to create will be owned by the government and shared within government and with public under an open source licence.

* Agencies would evaluate software costs at a whole-of-government level when deciding to develop software or license it.

* Agencies considering technology purchases over $2 million would first evaluate whether publicly available technology would substantially meet their requirements.

Labour would also create a government “app store” to provide “a short circuit for fledgling NZ software developers to get to market” which would allow local developers to submit software for purchase by government agencies. Labour promises to ensure “informed neutrality” in software purchasing with due consideration of open-source software. An “aspirational target” will be set whereby two thirds of government agencies will be using some form of open source software by 2015.

7. Cyber security

Labour says it supports the government’s Cyber Security Strategy and would establish a Computer Emergency Response Team for New Zealand as well as encouraging the development of cyber security expertise at the tertiary education level and via certification of professionals.

Clare Curran responds to Tuanz

Labour ICT spokesperson Clare Curran sees irony in TUANZ raising doubts about the early unbundling of UFB, signalled in the Labour Party’s ICT policy.

Labour undertakes to “establish whether mass market urban fibre can be unbundled as it is rolled out, and whether the fibre network can operate on the principle of the equivalence of inputs (EOI) standard from build, rather than from 2020,” says the policy.

TUANZ, Curran says, was pushing for strict EOI standards itself earlier this year. “It’s interesting that the people doing the criticising were running the same arguments themselves then.”

TUANZ CEO Paul Brislen says when UFB was first mooted, it might been possible to unbundle immediately, but “the market said it wasn’t interested” in competing at Layer 1. Now the economic model has changed in favour of one wholesale provider per region and the network has started to be built on that basis “it’s probably too late”; the policy Curran suggests is now a major change, he says, and “would risk derailing the whole project”.

Curran emphasises that the feasibility of a revision will depend on the detail of contracts with the Local Fibre Companies and Chorus, which are still substantially unknown at this stage. All proposed changes will be negotiated “in good faith” with the parties, she says.

At a minimum, Labour will “ensure that the Commerce Commission has full power to examine the contractual arrangements between the Crown and private investors,” says the policy. It also proposes to “restore to the Commerce Commission the ability to set prices for the copper local loop, instead of dictating a single New Zealand-wide price (ie end forced national averaging).”

Computerworld asked whether the predominant public mood is not one to get on with the build and whether a proposal for further tinkering risks losing Labour votes. The “let’s press on” point of view is held by the ICT industry, Curran replies, but not necessarily by the end-users, who may well find they are getting broadband more slowly than they expected.

The policy makes good on a number of points signalled in Computerworld’s recent Q&A interview with Curran, including a suggestion for a more consistent regulatory regime covering telecommunications and broadcasting, which are markedly converged.

Labour proposes a new “digital strategy” for the country, which Curran calls “a working vision” concentrating on investing in skills development and reducing the “digital divide”.

Broadly, Labour’s is a good policy, Brislen says; “about 80 percent of it is on track with what we [TUANZ] suggested in our Broadband Manifesto before the last election.” The convergence of regulation of telecommunications and broadcasting in particular is needed, he says.

“They’re both a matter of transmitting information on wavelengths,” and it makes little sense for different regulatory regimes to apply.

Paul Matthews assesses Labour's policy

NZ Computer Society CEO Paul Matthews says the society sees a number of positive features in the policy. The digital skills agenda is “the most positive area in the policy in terms of outcome for New Zealand,” he says. “We're very happy to see Labour commit to 1,000 funded ICT internship placements per year which would lead to greater outcomes for both companies and students and put New Zealand on a path towards greater tech-led innovation.

“Internship programmes like Summer of Tech are making a real difference and it's great to see the funded places increase to give more companies and students the opportunity to be involved in innovative research and development initiatives,” he says.

Labour proposes a specific “Ministry of Communications and IT, based in the Ministry of Economic Development, to bring together all policy involving broadcasting, communications and information technology issues.” This is currently scattered among a number of ministries and other government agencies, including the State Services Commission and the Ministry of Culture and Heritage. Attached to the new ministry would be a chief technical advisor to government, “who would have responsibility for producing technology roadmaps for New Zealand, for overseeing NZ’s national digital architecture driving the uptake of ICT across society.”

The idea of a chief technical advisor is good to see, says Matthews; such a person would “act as an independent high-profile advisor to the PM in the same way the chief science advisor does now. This will lead to a greater understanding within Government about the opportunities tech-led innovation presents,” he says.

NZCS also expresses support for Labour’s well-signalled intention to remove the internet disconnection penalty for repeat infringing file-sharers under the Copyright Act and to remove the ability to patent software.

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