Opinion: New minister will find gigabits of capable help

The answers are all there, says TUANZ chief executive

Listen. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Take input quickly from credible people everywhere you can find them. Apply a huge dose of imagination, common sense and ingenuity.

That’s what I would do if I were the new Minister of Communications, or whatever equivalent there may be around the time you read this article. That’s what’s needed to turn the grand broadband vision into reality. The answers are all there.

National’s election commitment of ultra-fast broadband for all New Zealanders proved a winner. Not on its own — there were other differentiators during the election campaign.

But the broadband pledge was special. It was the first policy to be released. I was there on 22 April when John Key announced it at a special lunch hosted by the Wellington Chamber of Commerce. I sat next to him. We chatted, I was left in absolutely no doubt about his commitment.

“Ultra fast broadband for all New Zealanders” resonated strongly with the electorate. Finding someone who said “no, its not worth the money” or “lets leave it all to the private sector” was impossible. We all understood and agreed.

I continue to believe that on this policy National is determined to deliver. I’ve heard numerous National members speak in support — Tim Groser is one who comes to mind, having diverted the discussion onto broadband at a Radio NZ election debate, notwithstanding that the debate’s subject matter was completely different.

John Key has correctly identified what Kiwis want and made it heartland National policy. The core of his party believes in it. So does the electorate. In contrast to some political policies, broadband isn’t just an optional extra added quietly to appease pressure groups.

So who should the incoming minister put on his “must talk to” list in week one?

Inclusiveness will be crucial — not for “PC” reasons but to ensure the needs of diverse likely investors are reflected. In our Green Paper, released a few days before the Election, TUANZ noted that the network of 2010 will have a rich tapestry of different owners — traditional industry players, non-traditional passive infrastructure investors, local communities through councils and power lines companies, and many more. Of course the mainstream carriers and other investors of the 1990s will be involved heavily and should be on the minister’s coffee circuit, but confining the dialogue to them would be wrong.

To understand the diversity of interests keen to get into this space, the new Minister should trawl through some of the applications for the Broadband Challenge of a few years ago, and its current equivalent, the Broadband Investment Fund. Whether or not these applications will still be considered is a moot question — I sincerely hope they will. But either way they are a snapshot of the wide range of potential investors who are potentially interested in fibre if the incentives are right. That information is a goldmine.

Local government should be on the coffee list. Councils have had a roller-coaster ride in telecommunications, with ambiguous signals from central government and stop-start funding. These days, believe me, councils are very much engaged in meeting their constituents’ broadband needs. It’s recognised as infrastructure — alongside electricity, water and gas as a core element of the business local government is in.

Then there are well-informed industry groups — InternetNZ, the Council for Infrastructure Investment, the Telecommunications Carriers’ Forum, TUANZ and others. Each has a perspective worth hearing.

So what will TUANZ tell the incoming minister? We’ve released our green paper “Towards a National Digital Architecture” so we have a head start, and we’ll be expanding on its themes.

We’ll be seeking a plan — a national digital architecture. Nobody builds a dwelling or commercial building without a plan, and no business establishes an IT function without an architectural phase. So why would a country? In most sectors there’s a leadership role by government to set the umbrella guidelines — the Road Code for driving, the Building Code for construction, and the Civil Aviation Rules for flying are examples.

Does the government have such a plan for telecommunications? Not really. There are bits and pieces all over the state services in places like the State Services Commission, the Ministry of Economic Development, Ministry of Education and elsewhere.

But there is no national blueprint in which, all in one place, a national architecture can be located. And the days when Telecom de facto ran the architecture, and everything connected to the network had to have a Telepermit, are long gone.

The TUANZ vision of such a plan has it covering business, management, security and technical issues. Interoperability, investment efficiency, security, competition and market oversight will all be addressed. Such an architecture will not only define the parameters of the new diversified network, but also be a one stop point of reference for investors looking to enter the industry.

So the incoming minister will have plenty of people to call on for insight and information. They will also be armed with the considerable comfort of knowing that the policy they are charged with implementing is not only one of the most popular, but also arguably the most cost-effective form of investment this government will embark on. There will be loads of brownie points from the public as ultra-fast broadband rolls out.

In an economic downturn, what better comfort than knowing we are as well connected to the world economically as any other nation despite being at the bottom of the planet. Ultra fast broadband for all New Zealanders has a great ring to it. We’ve got new, committed leadership; let’s start now.

Newman is CEO of the Telecommunications Users Association of New Zealand.

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