Broadband debate: A good Rogering
The Telco Bill paves the way for Telecom – or, more precisely, its soon-to-be-hived-off Chorus division – to assume its new role as the main builder of the Government’s $1.35 billion Ultrafast Broadband initiative.The legislation signals massive changes to the telecommunications landscape, and it has had its fair share of critics along the journey to becoming law. The controversial ride is just about over, with the Bill now due back in the House for its third and final reading, which will just have been a formality.During the debate, Labour's telco maven, Claire Curran, grilled Communications Minister Steven Joyce on the fate of 300 schools that critics worry have fallen through the cracks in the Government’s broadband initiatives.Not so, the minister insisted. On top of the $285 million contract awarded to Telecom and Vodafone for its Rural Broadband Initiative, the Government has set aside a further $15 million to cover the cost of connecting the so-called Zone 3 rural schools."That will more than adequately cover the cost of linking the schools to their local cabinets with fibre, especially given that the drop costs are funded separately through the Ministry of Education," Joyce told the House."We had to wait to see the ultra-fast broadband footprint before we could tender to connect these schools, and the tender, I can tell the member, will be going out very shortly. Conspiracy over," he said.Before the Bill passed its second reading, however, nay-saying MPs had the opportunity to voice their disquiet – and Act politician Roger Douglas let rip with both barrels.Sir Roger said the Bill was the culmination of the National government's blind promise, before the last election, to deliver a nationwide fibre network. It was a blind promise, he said, because it was made without any evidence that such a network was needed or that it would deliver on its promises."The greatest flaw with this Bill is that it lacks vital information to make an informed decision. There has never been a wide economic analysis done on the Bill by Treasury," he said. This is true, as Communications Minister Steven Joyce has admitted, so perhaps Sir Roger is correct to criticise the Bill, and the UFB network it precedes, as a blind piece of policy by the government.On the other hand, all technology investments are essentially steps into the unknown. The government is taking a gamble, but it's a gamble with a huge and vital upside for the country's economic wellbeing if it pays off.Joyce says the net cost to tax payers will eventually be whittled back to $600 million once the debt the Crown is stumping up for Chorus is eventually paid back. That, he argues, is by international standards a very cheap price for a network which will provide fibre broadband to three-quarters of the population.Sir Roger may not see it that way, but Joyce has struck a good deal which should deliver a decent network at a very reasonable price.We now just have to hope that it gets built as promised, and that it does indeed deliver an economic fillip to the country, proving Sir Roger wrong in the process.