Nick Wood of Wellington consultancy Consultel was commissioned by Tairawhiti development board with money from Paul Swain's regional broadband project to conduct a broadband feasibility study for the east coast of the North Island.
Wood's report basically concludes that it's a great idea, but there's pretty much no way the council can afford to do more than the odd small project in the region.
I rang Wood because it seemed that the east coast, which stretches from Ruatoria in the north through Gisborne down to Wairoa, was falling behind the other regions. Otago, in comparison, gets a lot of press because it's steaming ahead on its planned rollout with BCL and Telecom. I surmised -- unfairly -- that the east coast region might be mucking about and wasn't really interested. It turns out they are very interested but want to do it right, so kudos to them for that.
The problems for the east coast are many and varied, but basically it boils down to a small, dispersed population of economically less well-off people in a region without any true telecomms backbone capacity that's not on the way to anywhere important. (The region could be seen as an representation in miniature of New Zealand's role in the world.)
The region faces problems on all the infrastructure points -- its electricity prices are horrendous despite its close proximity to the dams that provide the power. Its roads are poor, to which anyone who's driven on the Taupo-Napier highway will be able to attest. Its rail network is missing, presumed lost at sea. Home owners are more likely to share a phone line, meaning their dial-up connection will often be 14.4kbit/s rather than 56kbit/s, and the region has a lower than average phone rental rate -- nearly 10% lower than the national rate. A caller in Wairoa has to make a toll call to get through to Gisborne, meaning my friend Georgie who teaches at the high school there has a toll-free calling area of roughly 4000 people. In Auckland I have well over a million. The board's development officer, Rick Mansell, grimly jokes about buying Lotto tickets.
However, Mansell raises a very good point when he talks about interdependence. The region produces food and electricity for the rest of the country, but is not able to partake of the same kinds of basic infrastructure elements we take for granted. Is this fair? Are we supposed to simply concentrate on four main centres and forget about the rest of the country? Never mind broadband for the region -- what about dial tone?
The problem is the same across the different infrastructure platforms: it's the commercial model. It simply doesn't make sense for Telecom or anyone else to spend millions of dollars cabling the region when they're likely to get few users able or willing to log on.
Even wireless capability is expensive for a region where unemployment is high and incomes are low, so expectations are of a more basic nature.
There's the rub: if any region stands to benefit from information technology and broadband communications, it's the east coast. As Wood points out, it's one of the few regions in the country with a population pyramid that's actually a pyramid. It has a lot of young people who need educating. It has a lot of people who leave the region in their 20s and 30s but come back aged 35-50, presumably to raise families and enjoy life. They'll be more willing to do that if they can work from within the region and have their children educated to a high standard.
Swain's office is very keen on broadband, and for all the right reasons. PCs in the schools are leading to demand from home users, which is great to see.
But if the commercial model isn't going to work, and I can't see that it will, then we need a cash injection from a non-commercial source. That's likely to be central government. We can't expect New Zealand as a whole to benefit from the kinds of "knowledge wave" services we talk about all the time if that only applies to these isolated islands of glass and steel. It has to apply across the board, from the commercial centres to the poorest regions, or we as a country are failing ourselves.
If we don't do it for the kids in Wairoa schools who don't see a future beyond working in the freezing works, then we should do it for ourselves so we can all flourish. Isn't that what this is all about?