From the cowshed to Singapore: group plugs broadband

A consortium of Wellington IT, communications and entertainment-related companies is to look at setting up an efficient broadband link to Singapore, with the help of a $15,000 government grant to draw up a business plan.

A consortium of Wellington IT, communications and entertainment-related companies is to look at setting up an efficient broadband link to Singapore, with the help of a $15,000 government grant to draw up a business plan.

The intended link will open up a “digital trade route” allowing Singapore businesses and educational establishments to communicate more effectively with New Zealand firms and to use New Zealand content, says Paul Swain, the minister for commerce and IT.

As part of business-plan formation, the First Light consortium will survey Wellington businesses to judge their needs and willingness to participate in a collaborative scheme. At the same time, the consortium, with metropolitan network provider CityLink and web design and marketing company Ensignz as its prime movers, is attempting to convince rural users and lobbies of the feasibility of wireless for getting broadband to the more distant and difficult parts of the country, where wired solutions like Telecom’s JetStart ADSL are not practical.

First Light mounted a reduced-scale demonstration of such a link last week in Parliament grounds for an interested small group including ministers Swain, Jim Sutton (agriculture) and Marian Hobbs (in charge of SOEs, with emphasis on TVNZ telecomms subsidiary BCL).

Education minister Trevor Mallard was scheduled to attend to lend some credibility to potential educational uses, but was otherwise engaged, as was Deputy Prime Minister Jim Anderton, defending the frictions in his own party a short distance away in Parliament itself.

Both ends of the local link were set up on the steps of the Parliamentary library, where laptops were mounted on an incongruous-looking hay-bale in an attempt to reproduce something of the atmosphere of a cowshed. The wireless link went across the road to an antenna on the roof of Wellington’s High Court where it linked in to the CityLink network.and back to the library steps. The total wireless distance was a few hundred metres, but Ensignz’s Chris O’Connell says a more powerful omnidirectional antenna would transmit a signal to all points within a radius of 40km.

Schemes like the Singapore “digital trade route” and broadband to rural New Zealand are better as a community effort with minimal government funding and no continuing “subsidy”, Swain says. “If you build in subsidies, governments come and go and the funding may not be there tomorrow.”

But he advanced the possibility of such schemes getting money down the track from the government’s recently established venture capital fund and from Industry New Zealand, which is in the process of restructuring its funding from a grants basis to a scheme of “revolving loans”. This will provide a more continuous source of funding, avoiding the problem of a hiatus when a grant runs out and another has to be requested.

First Light is hoping to have the Singapore link business plan and other essential negotiations finished by mid-year, and after that there are no technical reasons holding it back, says O’Connell. If the consortium meets the first deadline, a functioning link is likely to be running some time in the third quarter of the year, he says.

The dedicated route will add directness, control and a standard of service to the basic cable link. At present, a communication to Singapore might be routed through Europe or the US, and the New Zealand party has no control over how and where the data is transmitted. The “trade route” will be direct, says O’Connell.”

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