(Credit: Darren Greenwood)
As we know, farmers are such bleaters. They bleat as much as the four-legged woolly things in their paddocks. If it's not the weather, it's the strength of the dollar! Nothing is ever right. Likewise with rural broadband.
The Telecom Users Association of New Zealand has just staged its Rural Symposium on Broadband. Various representatives of the rural sector turned up, plus many from the ICT sector. ICT Minister Steven Joyce attended and received a right roasting.
Donald Aubrey, the vice president and telecommunications spokesperson for Federated Farmers, warned the New Zealand Government wasn't doing enough to help provide rural broadband. Aubrey told the minister bluntly, he could be the "architect of regression" if he wasn't careful.
The farming leader argued agriculture is the "true engine room" of the New Zealand economy, generating 64 per cent of the country's export receipts. Thus, the rural sector is demanding its broadband to be brought up to speed with the urban areas.
He added that the government's own broadband initiatives may not be needed so much in the city where it could "crowd out" the private sector, by making private sector schemes non-viable! Aubrey confirmed with me this afternoon that he was unconvinced that government grants to rural areas would bring the farmlands up to speed and more money was needed.
The event had seen much networking from telcos to electricity lines companies, and it was "moving situation" with the minister, so policies might change, he added.
I guess we have quite an issue here, something Australia also needs to consider for its own AU$43 billion NBN program. Now I have seen calls for it to be made "free", but any student of economics will tell you, "there is no such thing as a free lunch". Everything has to be paid somehow and there is never enough money to go round.
So governments like anyone else must prioritise, but are current priorities the right ones?
It might be argued that the cities and towns can fund their own broadband. The market can provide for the offices, the shops, the factories and the warehouses. As for suburbia, well that's where the voters lie, and they will want broadband for their shopping, the downloading of games and music, etc, etc. The market might provide here, but the voters seemingly want government, ie, the taxpayer, to pay. But is this "public good" a justifiable use of such spending?
And then we have the rural sector. Usually happy to shun government, but they want their subsidy too.
Put simply and bluntly: town vs. country, people vs. profit. But without the profits, how can we fund the people?
They argue they are the backbone of the economy, and will pay much in tax, an extra NZ$600 million this year, says the New Zealand dairy sector, thanks to higher prices for milk solids. Better broadband will also pay off as shown by the Livestock Improvement Corporation saying its online applications have boosted productivity by 15 per cent or NZ$1.1 billion a year.
So this issue of priorities is what governments and broadband providers face with their initiatives.
So what came out of the summit?
Richard Kay, IT Solutions manager for rural supplies business PGG Wrightson told me today that poor broadband creates challenges for his customers and sales reps across the country. Kay thought the response to the minister was "not as blunt as it could have been", saying more than a billion dollars might be needed to be spent on fibre, as well as wireless and analog frequency provision. But the country needs to avoid a "wild west" of too many differing suppliers and systems.
Nonetheless, "everybody is on the same page", the government has made "good steps but is not running fast enough".
Ernie Newman, CEO of TUANZ, who organised the symposium offers his reflections:
The government is right with its concepts and start, but there was a strong feeling the government must shift the balance to the rural areas where the economic returns are greater, rather than focus on population numbers, he told me. Already many companies produce innovative and cost broadband solutions in rural areas, which will benefit from extra support.
Newman added he was unsure if the minister might change his policy to reflect such economic demands. "The issue is these are the areas where New Zealand productivity comes from," he says.
So that, it seems, is the dilemma. Put simply and bluntly: town vs. country, people vs. profit. But without the profits, how can we fund the people?