National’s $1.5 billion fibre to the home plan

I have just returned from a Wellington Chamber of Commerce lunch at Te Papa where John Key announced the next National Government will invest $1.5 billion into extending our current fibre network, with the aim of having 75% of homes in NZ having fibre to the home by 2014. It got a very warm reception from the business audience

I am delighted, in fact beyond delighted. I’m thrilled. This is a stunning bold initiative, and one that I think is great wearing all my different hats.

Having served as the Public Policy Chair for InternetNZ (Internet Society of NZ) for the last five years, this is a massive step towards the vision we have of a high speed connected nation. And the level of funding and target timeframe is almost better than could be expected.

Fibre is to today’s economy what roads and rail were to us 100 years ago. One has to invest in the infrastructure before you get a return on it, from the services that can be delivered over it. This is why there is a legitimate role for the Government – there is a timing mismatch if you do not have the state invest capital in infrastructure development.

Especially pleasing was seeing a reference to the fact that the fibre network will need to be open access, and also done in such a way not to crowd out existing fibre plans. If implemented, this will be a public/private partnership with the public capital allowing the private sector to invest more.

As a National Party supporter, I’m also very pleased. I think it positions John Key and National as having an economic development plan which is focused on infrastructure investment. At a time when the Government has no real answers to the economic challenges facing NZ (except to say we can’t control petrol prices of food prices or house prices), and is mired in the repercussions from some silly stunts, National has seized the policy initiative.

What is good about today’s announcement is it is not in an area you normally expect National to lead. Everyone expects National to be tougher on law & order, and everyone expects National to cut taxes more than Labour. But this has been about showing a future looking vision of where New Zealand is heading.

Finally I’m just pleased as a New Zealander. The future of NZ does worry me. Seeing so many people leave for overseas, seeing our national income fail to keep up with Australia paints a gloomy picture for the future.

We have real challenges ahead of us – both economically, and environmentally. And the sad reality is that there are relatively few policies which are good for economic growth but also good for the environment. It can be a delicate balancing act.

But rollout of fibre to the home will, I believe, has significant benefits for us economically, environmentally, and in quality of life. What David Skilling calls the weightless economy, where our remoteness is less of an issue, will be a big part of our future. And having ultra-high speed broadband everyone will position us well to compete globally. No it is not guaranteed – few things are. But I think it is an investment very much worth taking – and for less than the cost of Dr Cullen’s cancelled chewing gum tax cuts.

The challenge now is for other parties to rise to the challenge set by John Key. For as much as it would be electorally advantageous to National for Labour not to make a similar commitment, I hope they do show similar ambition.

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