‘People’s broadband’ out-strips official efforts in Nelson region

The people have already 'structurally separated' from Telecom

People are moving ahead of both the government and telcos with the construction of a viable community people’s broadband network in the Nelson-Marlborough region, says Chris O’Connell.

Director of Strategy for consultancy Radar Guidance, O’Connell’s company is a prime mover behind the broadband initiative at the top of the South Island. The network, which is built on fibre largely provided by electricity company Network Tasman, with the help of a $1.8 million Project Probe grant, is a true MUSH (Municipal, University, School, Hospital) network, on which local government, educational establishments, health providers and others will run their own services.

As such, it’s structural separation in action, O’Connell told a breakfast meeting of the NZ Computer Society last week. “The people have structurally separated already — now Telecom’s catching up.”

The business mainstay of broadband in the top of the South Island, outside the public sector, is still to be found in the “five Fs: farming, forestry, fishing, fruit — including wine — and foreigners, (in other words, tourism),” said O’Connell. This applies to most of the rest of New Zealand, too. Government and city-bound planners are mistaken if they think someone in NZ will “found the next Microsoft”, he said.

He pointed out though, that the applications are not yet there to bridge the gap between the broadband connection and the needs of the agriculture sector.

“Most farm-management systems are still in 1990. They’re not networked,” said O’Connell.

As yet, there is no program available that will link all of a farmer’s data, drawing it in from sensors in the field and comparing it with results across the region. “There’s research going on [in the universities and Crown Research Institutes], but there’s nothing a farmer can buy.”

Regional broadband is about local needs, said O’Connell. And “big city marketers” don’t know what they’re talking about when they try to estimate and cater to that demand. The same applies to the “Astroturf commentators” who pretend they represent the grassroots, but who are in reality remote from the rural sector’s needs.

“They’ll tell you there’s no real demand for broadband, [but] there is, and it’s not about email and the internet. Most of it’s about moving big files around.”

Questioned, O’Connell cited geographic information systems images, for local government and planning; X-ray imagery, which has to be left uncompressed so the detail comes through; media projects; lots of work now being done by school students; data sent through the KAREN network, for educational and research purposes; and, above all, high-resolution videoconferencing.

This bears no similarity to old-style jerky videoconferencing, he said. And it will be used increasingly — and needed too — to establish a telepresence during international commercial negotiations and promotions, without physical travel.

We need digital trading “beachheads”, as well as — perhaps even more than — physical beachheads, said O’Connell. Wherever there are overseas partners that Kiwis need to talk to, there should be a videoconferencing link and government should be financing it.

The First Light project (reported in Computerworld, January 20 2005) was an early attempt to establish such an overseas link, with Singapore, but it foundered, “because the incumbent telecoms provider thought it wasn’t needed,” said O’Connell.

Project Probe was also, in a sense, before its time. The assessments of need hadn’t really matured into coherent programmes when the funds were available. “Now the programmes are here and there’s no money in this year’s Budget.”