City broadband plans a step in right direction

But a lot of water will have to flow under the Harbour Bridge before Auckland becomes a little San Francisco

Wellington and Auckland city councils have both now, at long last, stepped into the broadband breach.

While Wellington City Council announced its plans a few months ago, Auckland was quietly hatching its “CBD into the Future” strategy, which could include a “market-led” wi-fi network covering the CBD and city fringe (see page 9).

But a lot of water will have to flow under the Harbour Bridge before Auckland becomes a little San Francisco. Wellington, on the other hand, already resembles the Bay City in many cosmetic ways. But neither city, indeed no New Zealand city, can match San Francisco’s digital culture, which is built around great network infrastructure. So, any move to break New Zealand out of the network slow-lane has to be welcomed.

In its press release, Auckland City Council says if the network is built “the council hopes tourists, students, business people, and travellers need only to fire-up their laptops in public spaces, in downtown Auckland, to gain quick access to the internet.

“It is envisaged that any private service provider on the network would charge consumers for use, but access to select Auckland City Council websites will be free.”

Well, that’s a bonus.

Two things spring to mind here. First is the price. New Zealand broadband is hellishly expensive, as well as hellishly slow. The last thing we need is another premium-priced network — even if it is quick.

But the real problem is that our population, even in the cities, is low by international standards, requiring users of all kinds of infrastructure to pay above international rates to fund development.

The second question here is a technical one. Wi-fi may, or may not be superceded by WiMax or 3G. So, what is the right platform for municipal wireless in the here and now?

I don’t believe we should wait for all this to shake out, but we do need to try and future-proof any investments made — be they public or private — as much as possible.

Unfortunately, I see disappointment ahead if we don’t find some way to break out of this familiar pattern, and I keep coming back to the traditional way of doing so: investing public money.

Auckland is facing in miniature almost exactly the same issues that New Zealand faces in developing its infrastructure, and I hope it does a better job than has been managed on the national scale so far. But entrusting the development of strategic infrastructure, existing or future, to the private sector has generally proved problematic.

So, the question really is: Auckland and Wellington, and other New Zealand cities, planning similar initiatives, what is your vision worth? What growth do you expect from delivering on it?

If the two cities want this vision to materialise, why not put some significant skin in the game? In Australia, there is an election looming and, for both political parties, broadband is emerging as a real issue. As a result, both are planning to spend-up large.

On one level, this is just political one-upmanship, but, on another, it is a simple and — as it is here — long overdue recognition that Australia needs a broadband circuit-breaker. This is accompanied by the realisation that this will only happen with government support and, yes, even taxpayer money.

This is a question for our national leaders as well. When will the tinkering stop and the investment begin?

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