National and United Future

In continuing our scan of ICT policies from the major political parties in Election ’14, this post looks at the National Party and United Future. Again, our goal in these posts is not to be comprehensive, but instead offer a scan of particular highlights. If you’re keen to know more, check the links – otherwise, we have also received survey feedback from a number of parties, which is available here: 

National is seeking a third term in government at this year’s election, and given that they’re the party in power, many of their ideas continue themes from the past three-six years – and we think that there’s a lot to highlight.

National has upped the ante in terms of proposing increased public investment in high quality Internet infrastructure. Extending the Ultra-Fast Broadband build to another 5% of New Zealand, from the current 75% coverage to 80%, may not seem like a lot in percentage terms, but actually means a lot on the ground. That 5% can be made up of over a dozen smaller regional centres and towns that make sense to us in terms of furthering the build. There are questions to be understood here though about exactly how this UFB extension will operate. We don’t think it should necessarily be a fait accompli that this goes to Chorus, and so we look forward to talking with National about process for allocating this extension if they form the government again after the weekend.

The second idea of note is the proposed extension to the Rural Broadband Initiative. We don’t want to see rural New Zealand left behind, so further investment in rural connectivity seems a great idea to us. The current RBI is indeed a step forward, but 5 megabit connections were never going to be a sustainable end-game for rural New Zealand. There’s also plenty of grumbling around about the communities that have fallen “in between” – not RBI, not UFB, so left out in the cold. National’s proposal to extend the RBI via a contestable grants process therefore seems like a great idea, in that it will allow communities themselves to design solutions that may best meet their needs. That said, there are some devils in these details too; $100m in additional funding isn’t going to be enough to keep rural broadband developing in line with what’s available to urban New Zealand, and communities are going to need help in designing good solutions. There’s also the not-insignificant issue that the policy would charge the telco industry $50m a year for three years longer than was previously promised through the Telecommunications Development Levy. They’re unlikely to be too happy about that. 

It’s also great to see the National Party picking up on the opportunity to transform the education system via the Internet. This is exciting, but needs more than just connectivity and device solutions. We need to look at how we equip teachers themselves with changes to their teaching methods, to incorporate the Internet and ICT at a fundamental level. The model is there: the Manaiakalani cluster in eastern Auckland shows what needs to be done.  So: movement in the right direction here, but still more opportunities too.

United Future is another party that has thought about the Internet and ICT use in New Zealand. Their policy is here: 

It isn’t a large policy, but there is nothing wrong with that – Internet and ICT matters have not traditionally been a big area of focus for United Future, though we have previously worked well with them on issues like copper broadband pricing through our work in the Coalition for Fair Internet Pricing.

In terms of their specific policy proposals for this Election 2014:

Extending network coverage. We agree – extending the provision of high quality networks in New Zealand provides more New Zealanders with world class infrastructure, supports the development of a “weightless economy”, and provides New Zealanders with access to the very best of the world’s Internet services. There isn’t much detail here as to how United Future proposes to do this, but we appreciate their voice in support for such initiatives. 

Lowering the cost of cellphone usage in New Zealand. Again, as more and more of the Internet moves into people’s pockets via mobile networks, questions of mobile access pricing become more important. Mobile has already been one of the truly transformative aspects of Internet access in New Zealand, and ensuring reasonable access at reasonable prices is important. We see however that the mobile market has truly transformed already in New Zealand, with three networks competing and delivering the lowest prices New Zealand has seen. We note United Future’s comments about a robust regulatory system, and we agree – but this is just as, if not more important, in dealing with fixed network copper and fibre pricing than it is for mobile in New Zealand. 

We are concerned however about United Future appearing to see that filtering and content control is a useful part of an effective response to harmful behaviour or content through or over the Internet. We don’t believe that centrally mandated Internet filtering is ever appropriate – it is not the way the Internet was designed, and hampering network performance to filter out a small proportion of offensive or negative content always runs the risk of who defines what is indeed offensive or negative. The focus is best on making sure that young people learn the skills to be confident digital citizens in the online world. We do understand that there are issues around harm online, and are working with the current Government on improving the Harmful Digital Communications Bill – and likewise, we know we can work constructively with United Future too.

We applaud United Future for thinking about Internet and ICT issues to this degree. This is another example of just how important the Internet has become in New Zealand. We see plenty of room for working with United Future on how we can promote the internet’s benefits and uses, and protect its potential.