Cunliffe, Key wary of matching Aussie broadband spend-up
In Australia, the opposition Labour party has promised, if elected, to spend $A5 billion of government money on broadband infrastructure. Prime Minister John Howard has hit back saying his conservative coalition government will shell out $A2 billion. 15 months out from our next election (give or take) how are broadband promises shaping up on this side of the ditch?
Last week, opposition leader John Key told me broadband would be a major election issue. Apparantly after house prices, broadband woes are the second most common gripe he gets from punters. This was at a the launch of Turnstone's new VoIP service, where Key gave an articulate speech about the need for better broadband, and its role in helping NZ overcome its isolation. It was very smartly phrased, but of course it's a point that's been made before, and one which no-one in any party disputes. What we need now, from all quarters, is details.
Key praised countries like Singapore, where the government has already invested in a fibre optic broadband network, and Australia, where it's now only a question of which party will spend more federal money on fast internet. Here, the lack of rural broadband is a big issue for Key, and one that he returned to several times last Monday.
However, Key also said that any government he leads would not directly follow Singapore or Australia's example, but rather subsidise broadband infrastructure providers so the government doesn't have to pick which technology - DSL, fibre, wireless - is best for New Zealand's population, which of course is relatively small and dispersed over a relatively large, hilly area. Overall, Key sounded like he was describing the current government's PROBE scheme, which is technology agnostic and indirectly subsides rural broadband - and in fact Key has no fundamental issues with PROBE. How much his government spend? Key won't be pinned down at this point.
On Friday night, at the Computerworld Excellence Awards, I also had the chance for a quick chat with the incumbent IT and Communications Minister, David Cunliffe. Like Key, Cunliffe is keeping a sharp eye on the broadband promises being made across the Tasman. Of course, as has been well chronicled, Cunliffe has already been our most proactive IT minister by some miles, with the opening of local phone lines to exchanges to competition, naked DSL and so fourth, as has been well chronicled.
But as for directly spending government money on broadband, Cunliffe says before he announces any other major initiatives, it has to be seen how the current raft of changes play out (the final details and implementation of Telecom's operational separation will not be finalised for another couple of months). Cunliffe did say that his plans for reshaping NZ's broadband landscape are far from finished.
As things stand, Cunliffe has wrought radical change on the broadband regulatory environment, but for his government to reap any benefits, meaningful price and internet service improvements will have to be felt by voters within the next 15 months.
If polls stay the way they are, I'm not sure John Key will particularly feel the need to fill in much more detail on his own broadband plans. When I asked him if Maurice Williamson - IT minister during the 1990s and the current National spokesman - would return to his old position if National wins power, Key was noncommittal, saying it was too early to say who would fill any post. He did, however, muse that broadband is more of an economic issue than an IT issue, so maybe the post could suit Bill English. Maurice, don't take that lying down ...