New Zealand's ICT ranking up but could do better

Government hopes initiatives focusing on 'content, confidence and connecting' will push us into the global top 20

New Zealand has crept up two places — to 21st position — in the information communications technology stakes, according to the World Economic Forum. In its recently released Global Information Technology Report for 2004, WEF says New Zealand is now "well-positioned" in the Asia-Pacific region.

However, NZ's performance looks less impressive when compared to that of Singapore — the leading ICT performer in 2004, displacing the US, which fell to fifth place — and Japan, Hong Kong and the Nordic countries, who were all placed in the top ten. Australia ranked eleventh. The United States fall from first-place grace had more to do with competitor countries improving their performance rather than the US' performance worsening, said the WEF report.

The WEF surveyed 104 countries. This is the fourth year it has done so. It analysed a variety of factors, including the quality of maths and science tuition at schools, telecomms affordability and internet access, as well as how well government and business were exploiting ICT. There is a broad consensus that ICT plays a central role in boosting growth in both developed and developing countries, says the WEF.

Not surprisingly, the Minister of Communications, David Cunliffe, says he is pleased New Zealand has moved up the WEF rankings. He wants the trend to continue and has been working on a number of policies to help New Zealand to do even better. These fall under the government's digital strategy umbrella. This document was released for consultation last year and is now in the process of being finalised, says the minister.

The digital strategy focuses on three action areas: content, confidence and connection, says Cunliffe. Through these New Zealand will reap the most from ICT, he says. This year's budget will include funding for the content and confidence part of the strategy as these are "demand drivers". In this context, content is important because it helps communities, business and government communicate. The more relevant content there is, the greater the demand for services such as broadband, Cunliffe says.

Confidence is defined as being about people becoming more skilled at using ICT so as to harness its power for their needs. Small business owners in particular could boost their productivity by improving their ICT usage. This in turn would increase demand.

Increased demand would feed into a more competitive market for broadband, says Cunliffe. However, he could not go into more detail on the initiatives he had prepared until the government's digital strategy is released, he says.

Connectivity will be underpinned by the Telecommunications Act 2001, according to the Government. Considerable progress has been made in terms of improving competition in the telecomms market since the Act was enacted, says Cunliffe. But, despite the apparent success of the Act here, the Ministry of Economic Development is currently undertaking review the Act to ensure it effective.

The Commerce Commission's actions demonstrates that the Act is working, says Cunliffe. He pointed to the commission tackling issues such as mobile termination rates, number portability, and business and residential wholesale pricing for service providers. Monitoring Telecom's goal of 250,000 residential broadband customers by the end of 2005 is also part of the commission's programme of action in this area. Cunliffe says a third of these customers should come from competing providers.

Cunliffe also points to another competitive initiative, Project Probe, the state-funded programme under which Telecom has won the contract to install broadband in 12 out of 15 rural regions of New Zealand. ICONZ, Wired Country and Pacific Net are supplying the remaining three. Probe also includes the funding of the Advanced Research Network for academia.

The Government sees a strong ICT infrastructure one of the keys to New Zealand maintaining its strong economic growth, Cunliffe says.

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