That which I used to call “National’s only policy” (broadband)
For the long while before Labour started releasing National’s policies, I often called National’s policy of a public-private partnership to roll out a broadband network “National’s only policy”. National had little else in the way of real promises, and I thought in that lone issue National had tapped into something most people could relate to. I’ve been since surprised to find a few people—all anti-Nats, of course—who have dismissed it as unimportant, extravagant, or useless.
To these people, perhaps, slow broadband is their own little frustration at home, and has no link to economic productivity. On a small scale at least, the link must be obvious. Less time spent waiting for data means more time spent doing productive things—both on and away from the computer. Add up all those lost seconds and minutes, over thousands of homes, and the figures rack up. Since the activity of everyday consumers ultimately drives the economy, more of it means more productivity. On a slightly larger scale, with businesses, educational institutions and health facilities (where National intends to give priority), where time really is money, the effect multiplies. We all saw how Telecom’s network problems totally messed up businesses. As the Internet becomes more central to communications internationally, breaking down geographic barriers, New Zealand (especially) cannot afford to be left behind.
The Labour Party is in no denial about the importance of broadband—it too has long had a policy of facilitating broadband rollout. Sceptics must be aware of this. Labour’s best criticism of National’s policy is that it will be “subsidising Telecom”, counteracting its efforts to reduce the monopoly’s market power. It is a very valid criticism, and a concern National seems to be aware of. Its first two principles for contribution of Crown capital spell out the type of market it wants to see: (ref)
- That this investment does not line the pockets of or give undue advantage to existing broadband network providers.
- The network is open-access, so that many service providers can compete to provide broadband services over it.
Perhaps—and I’m just guessing—it is keen to avoid the market failures that plagued the telecommunications market after its deregulation in the 1990s. But whatever motivated them, the five principles, like Cullen’s “four tests for tax cuts”, provide some comfort that National doesn’t intend to be silly about it. Which is important, if they’re prepared to go up to $1.5 billion of taxpayer’s money.
National’s policy, then, is just a more visionary, more costly, more risky and more ambitious version of Labour’s Broadband Investment Fund. There’s nothing surprising about this. The policies of the two major parties differ in principle only in a handful of areas, if at all. What sceptics need to realise is that broadband is not some trivial domestic issue. Like all of communications, and indeed all of infrastructure, it is central to the economy. So the question isn’t whether it’s important. It’s whether it’s important enough to warrant $1.5 billion.
- NZ Herald: ‘About time’ for investment in broadband – TUANZ (24 June 2008)
- TUANZ Blog: “National ups the ante!” (22 April 2008); “Labour announces broadband policy” (22 May 2008)