Late last month the Telecommunications Users Association of New Zealand (TUANZ) hosted a talkfest in Auckland and next week Wellingtonians hankering after a whole lot more telecomms talk can get it at a conference at Te Papa.
There’s a regular batch of speakers who get roped in to entertain the crowds: IT Minister Paul Swain typically kicks things off, followed by the usual suspects in the form of top managers of the country’s telcos, the odd bureaucrat, a consultant or two, an academic, one or two foreigners (who get to showcase the latest videoconferencing gear) and — maybe — a representative of the user community.
That’s not to say all the talk is wasted; some of it actually sounds constructive. But judging by what I heard at the TUANZ-organised event, a good deal of it is also at cross purposes.
We should acknowledge there’s been progress in the past couple of years in terms of the range of available services and providers — if you happen to live in Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch, that is. If you walk the streets of Auckland, for example, the evidence of new competition is underfoot; suddenly there are manhole covers bearing the names of newcomers United Networks, CityLink and Tangent. (The other evidence is the endless digging that’s been going on — you’d think they might have agreed to all lay their cables in one trench so the streets would be torn up just the once; or, at least, make sure they buried them deep enough. But no. So first, each separately laid their cables; now some of them are re-laying them at the proper depth. But I digress.)
While big city telecomms customers now have some choice of provider, the same can’t be said of those in more remote locations. “Remote”, in this context, can mean 5km from the CBD of one of the big centres. The bandwidth-starved who live in such localities would undoubtedly welcome the chance to dodge diggers at work in their streets if it meant new services. How much more talk is it going to take before they see some action?
For these bandwidth-poor to start enjoying the advantages of their city cousins, an impasse needs to be broken. On one side is the government, saying to telcos “build the networks and the customers will come”; on the other side, risk-averse telcos are saying “show us the demand”.
When these two positions were articulated at the TUANZ event — by Frank March of the Ministry of Economic Development on one hand and Telecom’s Bruce Parkes and Clear’s Ian Scherger on the other — it seemed there was no way ahead.
Parkes said “build it and they’ll come” sends shivers down the spine of Telecom’s chief bean counter; Scherger fell back on the pat “commercial success is the best lever” line.
It took a user, Clutha District Council head Ciaran Keogh, to suggest a possible way out of the impasse. He offered the view that demand would be stimulated by investment in capacity on a — wait for it — public good basis. Stony silence from the telcos. There was more: isolated customers could aggregate demand using a similar model to local authority roading contracts. Here was something the telcos could relate to; within moments they were repeating the idea as though they’d thought of it themselves.
Light at the end of the tunnel, then? Maybe, if such ideas are given the impetus they need. The minister, Paul Swain, in a separate session at the event, hinted that such a push might be forthcoming as the government would be “setting bold targets for high-speed internet access for all New Zealanders”.
So far though, it’s all just words; and talk, unlike building telecomms networks, is cheap. Next week, all the usual suspects will be at it again.