- Up, up and away
Have you seen the time line for Project Probe's rollout lately? It's funny.
This is what should be happening, according to the Probe website:
- August 2003, sign contracts
- November 2003, roll out network to most schools and communities
- November 2004, finish roll-out to final few schools.
Compare that with the actual state of affairs:
- February 2004, still discussing contracts.
Here's the funny thing - the providers are having to go ahead with their roll-outs even without having signed a contract to do so. That's right, they're doing it on trust, in effect.
The Ministry of Education is running the project. What's that you say? A bunch of teachers? Well, yes. Isn't that who you'd get to build your national broadband infrastructure?
Of course, they've got in the professionals - Wellington-based telco consultancy Amos Aked Swift to manage the project - which is a good thing. They know the telco world and what is and isn't possible and can act as a buffer between the schools and the network providers.
I'm sure the contracts will be signed soon and I'm sure work will be done on time and that by the end of November this year we'll have all the schools broadband-enabled.
But does that mean they'll actually be using broadband? I would say that, sadly, that's a big fat "no". I've heard two interesting things this week about broadband in schools.
The first is that Telecom is happily offering contracts to schools in areas where it wasn't part of the winning Probe bid and the second is that some of the schools are reluctant to sign up for anything, and are waiting for the government subsidy they're sure is coming their way.
Both speak volumes about our competitive environment.
Now, Telecom's not denying it's offering service to these schools. It's offering service to just about any school that wants to sign up, inside its Probe areas or out of them. School Zone is the name of Telecom's project and it's been going for a while. It includes broadband access, video conferencing and a bunch of managed services. It's an attractive offering and I'm sure there are schools that want to take it up.
The minister certainly thinks so. Trevor Mallard's office roundly endorsed Telecom's move when I rang to find out what they think of it. Mallard's press secretary talked about it increasing competition and that Probe never promised to deliver schools to the tender winners, just to give them a leg up on building their infrastructure.
Looking at it that way you have to say yes, it's a win. There is more interest in these regions since Probe began. Telecom had been talking about walking away from the rural sector entirely but since Probe began it's fighting tooth and nail to retain the customer base. Good.
However, you have to say it's a bit on the nose having fledgling network providers like Woosh Wireless, ThePacific.Net and Counties Power on the back foot before they even get their government-funded network expansion into place. It doesn't sit well with the idea of a sustainable long-term competitive environment. Instead you get small new companies with a network but without a ready-made market. Is that competition? Maybe it is - I'd rather see them competing on their various offerings instead.
The second idea is just silly. If schools keep waiting for handouts that aren't coming they'll not be able to offer their students all those wonderful things you get from having a broadband connection. If we value those things, and we do - that's why Probe is there in the first place - then we need to get the word through to these boards of trustees that they have to pay. They're not getting a subsidy from the government to buy these services; the government is paying the provider to get them to the gate.
- Up, up and away
Toothbrush: check. Passport: check. Mobile connection devices: check, check, check.
I'm off on a wee trip up north so next Friday's FryUp (assuming I can get the technology to work, have the time zones right and have something to say, of course) will be beamed to you from sunny Cannes.
Actually, it's just above freezing there at the moment and raining. Kind of like Wellington, really.
However, Cannes has the 3GSM World telecommunications conference and Ericsson is taking a bunch of us up there to have a look at the gear, to kick a few tyres and generally ask annoying questions like "But what do you do with it?" and "How much did the licence cost?" and "But my laptop does this already with WiFi". We're also having a look at a fibre to the home set up (very exciting) in Amsterdam and a full-blown 3G cellular operation in Rome (also very exciting) which truly exposes me for the geek propeller head I am. Forget Marcus Aurelius' statue, show me Wideband CDMA.
So if next week's FryUp seems a little disjointed and confused, blame the jet lag. It'll be nice to have something genuine to blame for a change.