Will the government’s $1.5 billion ultra-fast broadband initiative survive the economic fallout from the deadly earthquake that has destroyed central Christchurch?
It seems unlikely.
While no decisions have yet been made – and probably won’t be for several weeks at least – the chances are National’s flagship technology project will be scuppered or at least delayed, along with a raft of other major national infrastructure projects.
Communications Minster Steven Joyce is making no commitment that the previous timetable to have the UFB network completed by 2019 will be retained.
This is not surprising given Cabinet now has to wrestle with the unenvious task of reprioritising government spending to accommodate the multi-billion dollar cost of rebuilding Christchurch.
In the meantime, Joyce says, Crown Fibre Holdings is "continuing its work” which includes negotiating with UFB bidders.
Let’s not forget the reason the government committed to the UFB initiative in the first place was that ubiquitous broadband is a vital business tool which has the potential to boost the country’s economic growth. Stimulating growth opportunities by providing such infrastructure is even more important now as the business community rebuilds after Christchurch.
Perhaps the answer is to prioritise the UFB rollout in Canterbury, a move supported by InternetNZ and the Council for Infrastructure Development who issued a joint statement yesterday on the topic.
The Canterbury region is a hub for technology businesses and many of them have been quick to affirm their intentions to remain where they are.
New Zealand’s economic future depends on growing our so-called "weightless” exports – high-value, high-margin digital products and services that are delivered instantly over fibre rather than via ship.
In the wake of Queensland’s recent devastating floods, and facing budgetary juggling issues similar to those now looming in Wellington, the Australian Federal Government ignored calls to scrap the country’s National Broadband Network project.
Hopefully our politicians will take a similar approach and find a way to keep the vital UFB initiative alive.