Probe isn’t such a ‘dog’s breakfast’, after all

Broadband for schools has proved reasonably successful - despite Trevor Mallard's criticism

It may have been described by Trevor Mallard, the Minister for Industry and Regional Development, as “a dog’s breakfast”, but the Probe project has nevertheless resulted in a broadband service for schools and communities in most regions. It has also stimulated interest in broadband in the wider community, say the regional project managers.

There have, however, been difficulties with funding and deployment in some regions.

In three regions, Northland, Canterbury, and the Wairarapa and Tararua, the projects were originally awarded to Woosh Wireless, which subsequently hit what it called “capacity constraints” and backed out. Telecom then took over.

In the wake of this provider-switch, David Rycroft, who was the economic development manager for the Canterbury Development Corporation at the time, asks what has happened to the funding money provided. The Probe project had galvanised Telecom into improving rural broadband coverage, so when the Canterbury project landed in its lap “they said they’d already rolled out most of the infrastructure”.

The funding, which Rycroft says amounts to about $4 million, was instead spent by Telecom on subsidising subscribers to its wireless service, to traverse the “last mile” to its core network. This diversion of funds was “frustrating”, says Rycroft.

Tony van Horik, of Amos Aked Swift, which co-ordinated Probe, says the rumour of diverted funds has no basis. As a result of Telecom’s existing infrastructure in Northland, Wairarapa and Canterbury and other factors there was some saving, “but nothing like $4 million for Canterbury alone; that would be about what was saved over the whole project.” That money, he says, was redistributed back to government, with some of it ending up in the Broadband Challenge fund.

Woosh continues as the Southland provider, and deployment there has a marked effect on the rollout of broadband throughout the region, particularly in rural areas, says Steve Canny, enterprise and strategic projects manager at Venture Southland.

“It certainly made a big difference to the way the major telcos treated broadband. The introduction of competition meant Telecom suddenly rolled out unsubsidised broadband throughout the region.”

This, and the Woosh coverage in collaboration with Vodafone, has provided a foundation for the adoption of broadband-based technologies and has stimulated demand, he says.

However, now that the Government has forced the unbundling of the local loop, he sees growth through Telecom slowing down.

“Telecom will be less willing to invest in new infrastructure when their rivals can piggyback on that investment”, he says.

The rollout was delayed because of the complexity of resource consents and co-location agreements for equipment, he says. Woosh cited similar reasons for backing out in Northland, the Wairarapa and Canterbury.

However, Southland now has 95% broadband coverage and four or five community-driven extensions have been added to the original network. Canny says this is a notable achievement for less than three years.

Neil Simmonds, former CEO of Wired Country, which supplied Probe broadband to the Auckland region, says schools signed up quickly, particularly in regions like Rodney which had been starved of broadband coverage.

The award of the project to a rival played a part in “spurring Telecom into some pretty big investment. But that was owing to the presence of Wired Country in general as much as Probe specifically,” says Simmonds.

“At the operational level, negotiations with government went quite well,” Simmonds says. However, owing to the lack of eventual commitment from some regional councils, the funding eventually awarded fell well short of that asked for in the original tender.

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