Clearing capex clutter

I spent the summer up on the Coromandel and it was sheer hell, I can tell you. First, there was the hammock. It's almost impossible to stay awake in a hammock, I find, especially after drinking my father-in-law's wine and eating a sumptuous lunch.

I spent the summer up on the Coromandel and it was sheer hell, I can tell you. First, there was the hammock. It’s almost impossible to stay awake in a hammock, I find, especially after drinking my father-in-law’s wine and eating a sumptuous lunch. Then there was the swimming, the walks on the beach, the sun and the awful paperback novel to complain about. Honestly, it was all too much.

Actually, the worst part of any holiday on the Coromandel is the Thames-Coromandel coast road. It’s narrow, it’s treacherous, it’s usually crowded and it has only one redeeming feature: pohutukawa usually come into bloom the week before Christmas, and this most glorious sight makes driving slowly less of a drudge.

So it was with horror that I read about the increased use of the road by logging trucks and how the council is considering upgrading it to allow larger vehicles. This will of course mean ripping out all the mature pohutukawa in favour of what has come to be known as “four-laning”.

Why not use the trains? I wondered. Simple, really — we don’t have any. The New Zealand transport infrastructure is not what it could be.

Aha, you’re saying, finally a point to this scenic ramble. He’s drawing a comparison between the state of the rail network and that of the local loop.

Well, almost. I was lucky enough to take a laptop with a Telecom Mobile JetStream card in it away to the beach. I say lucky but I don’t know if it was good or bad fortune — the damned thing worked fine and I could clear my email on a daily basis. Computerworld’s editor had a similar experience in the South Island — access to the network from places previously regarded as so remote that they were lucky to have a phone link.

No, it’s not the network itself that’s the issue here; it’s the cost of the network. Telecom says the local phone loop costs hundreds of millions of dollars a year just to maintain at the current level. That’s without building in the costs of upgrading the service or expanding the network geographically. Imagine if Telecom didn’t have to pay that.

Imagine what could be done if that capital was freed up.

I’ve written about it before — with a tongue firmly in a cheek — but I think the idea is gaining merit. Re-nationalisation of the tele-comms infrastructure. After all, it’s being considered with the rail tracks.

Hear me out before you dismiss me as a greenie/leftie in drag, because from a business point of view it makes sense.

Infrastructure is one of those things you need in places even where it makes no economic sense. Roads have to go all the way into the smallest towns, hamlets and settlements, and so do phone lines. Telecom says it can’t economically justify connecting those last few percent of the country’s homes and businesses, because the further out you are the more it costs. So what are we to do here in a nation where most of our earnings come from rural business activities? The telecommunications revolution is in danger of bypassing farmers with them hardly being aware of it. Most still use faxes to stay in touch, and risk being shut out of those savings that efficient telecommunications can bring.

The railways are in a mess because when you commercialise such an operation you have to make money across all lines. Obviously on routes that not enough people travel you simply can’t, so you just ignore them. Rural telecommunications is falling behind because of the vast costs involved, so why not simply give it up? The copper lines are very last century and will really start showing their age when broadband demand properly takes off. Why not let government, and by government I mean the taxpayer, look after the loop and let Telecom concentrate on the rest of its portfolio. The government could get BCL or someone similar to manage the network as nothing more than a network operator, not competing with everyone else, and charge a commercially acceptable rate to cover expansion and upgrade plans.

This isn’t a plan meant to strike fear into the hearts of Telecom’s top brass. It would free up badly needed cash for other uses, and that can’t be a bad thing. Can it?

Brislen is IDGNet’s reporter. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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