Farmers, students back BCL broadband

BCL has happily launched its 'last mile' wholesale wireless network, though it neglected to mention the $1500 installation cost levied by the retailers of the service, Telecom's Xtra, Iconz and Ihug.

BCL last week happily launched its "last mile" wholesale wireless network, though it neglected to mention the $1500 installation cost levied by the retailers of the service, Telecom's Xtra, Iconz and Ihug.

The launch of BCL's Extend featured farmers and their spouses on video, praising the broadband service as the first workable internet connection they had had.

Telecom CEO Theresa Gattung was present, boasting that her company was “basically underwriting the whole deal”. This was quickly amended by BCL head Geoff Lawson to “Telecom is a foundation customer for our service”.

Gattung's comments seemed to underpin the unspoken implication: “Who needs local loop unbundling?”. Not only is Telecom partnering with a competitor, she said, but it’s also putting its traffic on a network that other competitors can use.

Questions about whether farmers and other remote users really need broadband, what they're going to do with it when they have it, and whether they would have been just as enthusiastic over a working dial-up 56kbit/s connection brought some cogent answers. Farmers are businesspeople and businesspeople need more than 56kbit/s, said Lawson.

Broadcasting Minister Steve Maharey referred to rural doctors being able to access training and source materials and seek advice from colleagues by way of video. The benefits to education are many, he suggested, such as students being able to study courses not provided at their own school.

A “teleconference” was conducted with a class of children at Meremere school in the Waikato, which was steady and clear at 512kbit/s. It consisted largely of a carefully enunciated "Good morning Mr Maharey", a biligual rendition of the national anthem and a few moments of kapa haka.

Perhaps the most perceptive reply to the “Do they need all this capacity” question came from BCL PR woman Anna Radford: “Did you need all the things your PC was capable of when you first bought it?” she asked Computerworld.

However, the analogy could be regarded as slightly suspect since plenty of applications are available to the typical PC user as need and interest grow. Potential users are still waiting for a convincing repertoire of broadband applications. A local representative from the Telecom/Alcatel interface acknowledged that there is a certain “catch 22” about broadband availability and use.

BCL referred twice in its announcement material to its status as a state-owned enterprise, and Maharey pointedly told the Meremere schoolchildren that as one of the shareholding ministers “I own his [Lawson’s] company.”

But Lawson says there had been no hint of ministerial urging for BCL to take a role in the government's Probe rural broadband project or other aspects of the nation’s telecomms infrastructure.

Rather, “our traditional market [in support of broadcasting] was in a mature phase, and we had to do something new”. Broadband access networking was seen as an opportunity that stacked up commercially, he says.

Neither does he see BCL at some time in the future being cajoled into providing some "public good" functions, something commercial networks in Europe and the US have been asked to make room for on their bandwidth. "I don't think [the government's] going to give us a charter," he says.

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