Cautious enthusiasm for regional broadband plan

Paul Swain and his colleagues will try hard to maintain freedom of choice for the regions in their broadband communications tenders in the face of what he is sure will be tempting offers of uniform national coverage.

Paul Swain and his colleagues will try hard to maintain freedom of choice for the regions in their broadband communications tenders in the face of what he is sure will be tempting offers of uniform national coverage.

The government has allocated an unspecified amount in the Budget for extending broadband to the regions, possibly as much as $99 million, depending on the value of tenders.

“I’m sure I’ll get the line: ‘Give us all the regions and boy will we have a deal for you’," Swain says. “I’ve heard that before in other contexts.”

Swain says it is crucial that installation of communications infrastructure to the rural regions be seen as a set of regional initiatives, since each region knows its own needs best. He acknowledges regionalisation may present interoperability problems, but says this will have to be covered in the tenders.

The plan is to issue between 10 and 20 regional tenders for the setting up of a broadband infrastructure offering at least 256kbit/s. This will initially serve the schools in each region, and will be coordinated by Trevor Mallard, he says. It will also bring broadband within the reach of some businesses – 75% to 85% coverage was the figure on the innermost of a set of concentric circles Swain showed on a slide.

The next ring, taking coverage out to about 90%, he says when asked to quote a figure, will be the rest of business and will use “Jim’s funding” -- a separate slice allocated in the Budget for the Ministry of Economic Development under Jim Anderton.

The last ring of the target, getting to the really inaccessible places, will depend on the cooperation of community bodies and private funding. (Throughout, Swain discreetly displays optimism that the same ministers and the same government will be in charge throughout a schedule that extends beyond 2004.)

Amos Aked Swift has been recruited as project director.

The tender process has already commenced and the next month or two should see a complete RFI/RFP exercise, interspersed with community consultation. By November this year, contracts with suppliers will be under negotiation. A year later, Swain sees the rollout to the majority of schools completed.

But this is only the infrastructure, he and Anderton say. “The important thing is what you do with it.”

Anderton sees opportunities in schools and polytechnics exchanging teaching resources electronically, “telehealth” providing services to deprived regions, and the usefulness of electronic links to businesses from forestry to accountancy. Police, courts and conservation could also benefit from having similar communications facilities to their urban counterparts, he says.

“To omit to train our young people, using communications and computer resources, will be to condemn the country to importing skilled people into a region where there is already unemployment," Anderton says.

However, one person involved in a regional project, who would not allow himself to be quoted by name, fears the steam might go out of regional contributions now that the business of communications infrastructure had “turned professional”.

“All sorts of parties will want a slice,” he warns, and some of their aims might not be that altruistic.

Hamish McEwen of Wellington metropolitan networker Citylink uses a different metaphor: a sudden influx of money might “flood the carburettor”, and funds may be frittered in undesirable ways.

“I’m excited to hear it will still be regionally run”, he says. He has little fear of monopolisation by one telco or one computer or software maker offering that “good deal”.

“The regional roads are not controlled by the people who run the cars.”

Steve Canny of Venture Southland is also keen to raise implementers’ sights above the technology. “It’s important that we don’t think in traditional telecommunications terms of a link between A and B, but in terms of resources” – data and applications for use remotely.

"What will drive the benefit will not be broadband but the capability of people to use the technology and their access to it,” says Peter McNeur of Wairarapa. In this regard he views optimistically the incentives of the Education Ministry in providing equipment for teachers and principals as well as students.

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