[Guest contributor Paul Brislen is chief executive of the Telecommunications Users Association (Tuanz), a consumer advocate group representing large telecommunications customers. He is currently attending the Commerce Commission's Future Broadband conference, entering its second day in Auckland - Chris Keall]
It's not bad when a long-scheduled conference coincides with a celebrity demanding you fix the very problems you're meeting to discuss. And so it is that I've spent most of yesterday at a Commerce Commission conference on the future of broadband ducking in and out to answer media calls about Stephen Fry's comments on New Zealand's woeful broadband.
Fry loves New Zealand. He loves our landscapes, our movie makers, our flat whites. He's been rogered silly by a kakapo in the name of education, worked with Peter Jackson on the Dambusters remake and he's currently filming The Hobbit. But a brief bout of grumpiness regarding his internet connection and his call to arms has captured the attention of the telco industry, if only those at the conference.
Fry's point is clear - there is demand and there is a need for faster services, better data caps and broader reach of broadband services. On that score he found no dissenting voices at the ComCom conference. Instead, we all nodded in agreement, even the network operators who were present, because we've identified this problem and were meeting to discuss the solution's implementation.
The government has committed billions of dollars of investment, both public and private, to building a fibre network for urban New Zealanders and a hybrid, blended network for rural.The conference has the goal of working out what barriers to uptake there may be, if any, that would stop the UFB and RBI projects being successful. Based on Fry's comment, the answer is that there is no barrier that Kiwis won't climb to ensure they get proper broadband and the various parties should simply focus on building the network as quickly as possible and get out of the way. Build it, and they will come.
It's a mantra that we've heard a lot and as someone who's written those very words dozens of times it resonates with me. Broadband is the answer, now what's the question. The conference, however, intends to look a little deeper into the issue and so far it's generated quite a bit of discussion.
It's not the dull talkfest these types of conferences often are - instead there's a degree of passion coming through, passion and not a little frustration at how long it's all taking. But overall the attendees are keen to get on with the business at hand and the rollout of ultrafast broadband is the enabler behind their vision, not the reason for it.
That's critical - all too often we talk about broadband as if it was a thing, something you can buy. I need broadband, my broadband is broken, my broadband is too slow.
Broadband isn't the end game here. Building a network and standing back with a flourish and a "voila" won't cut it. Broadband is nothing without the content that runs over it. It will make more sense in the future to talk about broadband television, broadband email, broadband internet access, broadband health and broadband education.
The fear is that small business and consumers will sit back and decline to swap over to the bright and shiny fibre network we're spending so much on. The rationale, that "we're good for internet, thanks" doesn't hold much water when you consider Fry's comments and even less when you realise the level of frustration that is felt especially in these market segments. SME and consumers in particular are crying out for bigger data pipes - they want to embrace this technology and they want to get stuck in. If the ComCom conference does nothing more than reveal this to be true it will be worth attending, and that's just on day one.