Broadband has been in the news this week – in Thursday’s budget in New Zealand the government announced the establishment of The Broadband Investment Fund, to be the main mechanism for the distribution of the government’s planned NZ$340 million (US$266 million) in urban and rural broadband funding. In addition to this, NZ$160 million has been earmarked for broadband services to the education and health sectors, bringing the total investment to NZ$500 million. A week or so earlier the National party announced plans to spend $1.5 billion on a public-private partnership for a fibre-optic network by 2012 (should it win the election later this year). According to the news release, the Labour package will be “a targeted fund aimed at increasing speeds to businesses, universities, schools, hospitals and under-served rural areas.” In urban areas it will be used to connect users to infrastructure that is required to be operated on an open access and non-discriminatory basis. The priority in urban areas is to deliver high bandwidth services to businesses, health and tertiary institutions, schools and other entities and that supports future roll-out of fibre or other high bandwidth technology to the home.
This is all good news for those of us working to promote the development of broadband services within education, and the development of things like the Virtual Learning Network and local schools “loops”. Providing access to broadband technologies for our school and tertiary level students is essential, not only for the opportunities they create to provide quality educational experiences for these students, but also because the development of skills, understandings and competencies in the use of these technologies is going to be increasingly important for their future as workers and citizens, and for the economic well-being of our nation.
Of course, while this sum of money appears large, it must be seen as just a beginning, as to do things properly we will have to continue to invest in this basic infrastructure for some time yet. In his response to the budget announcement, Ernie Newman from TUANZ comments, “to be honest, I feel a bit underwhelmed. The amount of money is pretty sparse and I guess I was anticipating more.” Ernie has long been a campaigner for bringing NZ’s broadband connectivity up to speed with other parts of the world – and in the other key broadband news item of the past week, we can begin to understand why.
The OECD released its 2008 report on Broadband Growth and Policies in OECD countries during the week, and for anyone wanting to come up to speed with the significance of broadband in a 21st century economy this is a good read. The report begins by stating; “Broadband not only plays a critical role in the workings of the economy, it connects consumers, businesses, governments and facilitates social interaction” and proceeds to illustrate the extent to which the various OECD countries are making progress in providing broadband connectivity to their citizens. The report canvases a range of issues such as cost, coverage and competition, and concludes in the policy section that open access ducting and dark fibre will be key.The report also states that… “because of their reach, wireless Internet connections using 3G or emerging wireless networks will be an increasingly important but largely complementary access technology to wired broadband. “
So how does New Zealand fare?
It would appear that out of all OECD countries we are currently just below the OECD average for broadband penetration (see graph above), with the majority of connections being DSL – so the recent government announcements are timely if we are to rise above that average line. This is not simply a case of “keeping up owith the Joneses” – access to a reliable, competitively priced broadband network is essential to the future economic wellbeing of our nation. We are simply too far from anywhere to remain competitive in the world while depending on shifting high volumes of physical goods too an fro. Broadband connectivity will enable us to participate in the global knowledge economy and contribute what NZers have become known for – innovation, creativity and the capacity to problem solve!