National's new $1.5 billion broadband spending proposal -- it's a bit soon to be calling it a "plan" -- is nothing if not ambitious: 75% of homes with fibre connectivity in by 2014 is not a goal that has been envisaged as realistic before.
And frankly, I don't think 2014 is a realistic time-frame. Assuming this new cable is to be undergrounded, this is a massive works project. Just scoping it could take a year or two. I'm not sure you could do that before you've established a new regulatory structure (see how long that took for Labour's reforms) and, more importantly, found third parties willing to invest at least some of the marching private funding, for a long-term return. And then you build it.
Even the New Zealand Institute's relatively detailed FibreCo concept envisages that the goal of 75% residential coverage will take 10 years, if investments start now, at a cost of between four and five billion dollars.
But this does represent a startling change of direction for National, one for which I suspect David Farrar deserves some credit, for tireless advocacy at least. He described it yesterday as "a public/private partnership with the public capital allowing the private sector to invest more."
That might raise a few concerns: conventional PPP structures don't always work out well for the public.
There's not a lot of firm detail in John Key's speech, even after he's done with the obligatory 1000 words of what The Standard has characterised as the "New Zealand sucks" message. The initial step is a doubled of the Broadband Challenge Fund to $48 million, and there's a very welcome commitment to "open access" (whether that means dark fibre or open access on the operator's terms isn't clear). There's no indication as to whether National is talking about a monolithic FibreCo-style operator, or multiple providers whose interconnection is subject to regulation.
What benefits would this massive investment bring over new DSL technologies via the existing residential copper network? For a start, it would work as advertised: 24Mbit/s DSL is more a theory than a reality for most users (although Telecom's programme to bring the fibre closer via cabinetisation will help) and it's extremely asymmetric -- much fast down than back up. The problem of long cable runs basically disappears when you install fibre. You'd be doing it eventually anyway: when the existing copper expires, there's no point in replacing it with more copper.
What would we do with this huge new bandwidth? Having entered the screen production business, I can think of what I'd do. There's a hell of a lot of sneakernet still going on now. Being able to edit video and send it to and from a production location instantly would work for me. There's the inevitable, but real, invocation of telecommuting. The health and education sectors would readily find applications. I don't think anyone's begun to explore the potential of distributed computing. Basically, if you build it they will come.
What wasn't said yesterday is that filling the last mile with fibre won't mean much unless National also takes up Labour's commitment to contribute to the cost of new, and competitive, international fibre links. Kordia might want to start doing its sums now, whoever wins the general election.
PS: I'm sure One News didn't mean to be mean, but its video of yesterday's announcement, showing Maurice Williamson looking like he had in fact swallowed a dead rat, and Key struggling through his speech (send the man to Toastmasters, for goodness sake) wasn't terribly complimentary.