It's (still) the connection, stupid

We're pleased to see the Digital Strategy - but is it too little, too late?

What is the goal of the Government's Digital Strategy?

Apparently, we're still trying to create a knowledge-based economy, only now the marketing folk have got their hands on it so it's a Knowledge Society. Fair enough. It's not bad as goals go. It wasn't bad when we first wrote about it back in August 1999. It wasn't a bad when the previous government announced its Bright Futures package or when the current lot held its Knowledge Wave conference or introduced the HiGrowth project, the Project Probe, the Telecommunications Inquiry, the Telecommunications Act, the Telecommunications Act review, the Growth and Innovation Framework, or any of the other projects we've seen.

Finally, it seems, we have a coherent strategy for all things digital. The Minister of IT and Communications, David Cunliffe, has added $60 million in new spending for a total of $400 million over the next five years. But, isn't it a bit late? If we'd started five years ago, New Zealand would be a different place today. Instead of desperately trying to raise our ICT sector's share of the economy from 3% to 10%, we might be there. Instead of talking about building an advanced network for our science and research community, we might be upgrading it, or even leading the world.

We used to be world class at so many of these things. Nowadays, New Zealand is remembered as the place which had the most dial-up internet users way back when. Nowadays, we're known as the country that shied away from unbundling — as being just one step ahead of those countries with no broadband infrastructure at all. The lack of an advanced network is hindering our scientists; the lack of R&D tax breaks is hindering our "innovation" sector. Will the Strategy fix this? I fear not.

The Strategy breaks everything down into three areas: content, confidence and connection. Content and confidence are important, of course. Local content should be encouraged and government is definitely the right body to do this. The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand is a tremendously important project, but, sadly, it won't reduce the cost of broadband or increase the speed with which we connect to the rest of the world.

It's still the connection, stupid. And, without it we can have all the content we want; we can engage in multiple online transactions; we can log on and (possibly, one day) fill in online forms for Births, Deaths and Marriages; pay our taxes online, and read up on just-enacted laws, but without cheap, affordable, fast connections no one will bother.

Here's something I just discovered: according to the UK-based bandwidth provider, Sohonet, it's cheaper to send data from London to Los Angeles than to send the same amount of data from Auckland to Wellington. Think about what that's doing to our economy. Do you want to work with a local business to develop a new product? Forget it — it's cheaper to deal with someone in the UK or Australia. Do you want to build a community of like-minded folk in New Zealand? Use the telephone and call them up because woe betide you should you try to collaborate electronically, say, with video: the cost will kill you.

The Digital Strategy does have set goals, including timelines, and money, which is good. By 2007, 60% of residential and SME customers should have access to "fast broadband" services and New Zealand should be in the top half of the OECD for broadband connectivity. By 2010 that will be extended to 90% and we'll be in the top quartile. "Fast broadband" is defined as being able to "send video files" and suggests a connection speed of faster than 5Mbit/s. But, by 2007 I would hope we were looking at 10Mbit/s plus and that's just to keep up with the rest of the world. As we struggle on with 256 and 128kbit/s and call it broadband, the rest of the world is "making do" with services that start at 500kbit/s. In Australia, ADSL2+ services are being rolled out today — speeds of 8Mbit/s are available already and we are expected to wait until 2007 for 5Mbit/s?

There's plenty of meat in the Digital Strategy, but without basic broadband infrastructure we won't be able to make any headway either as a knowledge economy or a knowledge society.

The Government has put $24 million forward to build 15 "open access" networks but that's only the beginning. It's going to take a lot more than that to sort out this most fundamental of problems: access. Fix that first, Minister, and then we can talk about the rest.

Brislen is a Computerworld reporter. Contact him at paul_brislen@computerworld.co.nz

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