It was a gloriously sunny day on Wednesday, just right for a dash through the north Waikato to Meremere Primary School to hear the government announcement on Project Probe.
We listened to the kids from the school (roll: 49) sing a couple of songs, perform a great haka that had the TV camera guy running back and forth like a mad chook and then all shuffled in white-faced embarrassment as none of us were willing to get up and sing a song in reply (I think the kids were particularly relieved when they let us off that task).
The education minister, Trevor Mallard, announced the three latest Project Probe tender winners. Waikato, Wellington and Taranaki will all have broadband access delivered by Telecom and BCL.
Government was going to announce all of the Probe winners this week but for some reason could only bring itself to do these three; the remainder will be revealed in the coming months. That's right, months. Why the delay? Nobody will say for sure. The official word is something about getting contracts signed. There's the smell of politics in the air.
But that was inevitable, really; after all, this is a government-sponsored programme. As one man said to me this week, did we really expect the government not to award money to a government agency and the country's largest share market player?
So we now have six regions settled. Three contracts went early to Walker Wireless/Vodafone and now three have gone to Telecom/BCL. It's interesting to look at the dynamic in the tendering process here. The first three were awarded to Walker Wireless by three independent tendering processes. Those three regions - Northland, Southland and the Wairarapa - decided to go it alone and each reached the same conclusion: Walker Wireless was the wireless solution for them.
Interestingly, I'm reliably told that Northland, at least, was asked to get an independent audit done of its tendering process to make sure it could prove it wasn't simply a case of Anything But Telecom.
Probe is supposed to be about two things: extending broadband capability into the far reaches of the country, and increasing competition in broadband services. Waikato, Wellington and Taranaki will soon have lots of broadband offerings to chose from: Wellington already is well serviced - TelstraClear and CityLink are in town - and it's fair to say there is already competition in the region. Taranaki will soon benefit from having Telecom, Ihug and ICONZ all offering broadband services on BCL's network, and in the Waikato we have the meeting point of Wired Country's wireless network and the district council's plans for Wi-Fi.
It could be argued that giving Telecom/BCL these regions doesn't do any harm and means you can give other smaller players the tendering wins they need to get started in some of the other regions. But if Telecom/BCL were to win all the remaining tenders, that would be another thing; just as if Walker Wireless/Vodafone were to win them all. I'd like to see a range of options, a range of companies and a range of technologies around the country. Then we can see which ones work and adapt them for use elsewhere.
Entertaining aside: after the Probe press conference and announcement were over, and we'd eaten our fill (in Meremere they feed you till you can't walk. The photographer was so excited by it he took pictures of all the food!), we made our way slowly back to the car. The minister had taken off moments before but stopped up on the corner of the street outside the school. By the time I got up there to see what was going on he'd turfed Astrid, his press secretary, out onto the roadside and was giving at least a dozen small children a ride home in the ministerial car. They were jammed in like sardines and off they went, the bottom of the beige Fairmont scraping quietly along the road. Poor Astrid had to stand on the street corner waiting for her ride to return. Fortunately it was a gorgeous evening in the Waikato so I didn't feel too sorry for her. And if you're looking for a caterer for your next corporate event you'd be wise to contact the PTA group at Meremere Primary School. Great nosh, guys.