profile New Zealand's new Communications Minister Stephen Joyce
has the gargantuan task of dragging New Zealand into the next
broadband age, a labour which is slated to take 10 years.
NZ Communications Minister Steven Joyce(Credit: NZ Govt)
Although the Kiwi target of reaching 75 per cent of its
population with its own national broadband network (NBN) is much lower than Australia's lofty 98 per cent, New
Zealand has upped the speed ante with its fibre-to-the-home play. New Zealanders will
be able to enjoy 100Mbps from the country's planned NBN, much higher than Australia's plan of 12Mbps.
Yet New Zealand isn't throwing nearly as much money at its broadband goal
as Australia, allocating $1.5 billion to its NBN plans, in comparison with Australia's $4.7 billion. Some of that is because of the smaller population and
target, but some of it is also the government's strategy of leaving the
customer access layer of the network to the industry, while providing just the backbone
infrastructure, which Joyce sees as the natural bottleneck and
candidate for monopoly.
"We're focusing on the dark fibre layer. We see the wholesale
and retail services being provided on top of that," Joyce tells
ZDNet.com.au during a recent interview.
New Zealand is also looking to go cheap on rolling out the
fibre, with micro-trenching and hanging fibre on power poles only some of
the strategies being planned to keep the costs down.
There is a certain amount of faith with all of these things.
Yet even removing the cost of the access layer and reducing the
bills for laying fibre, it's a big investment and one which no
government can take lightly.
Speaking with Joyce you get the feeling it's like walking a knife edge: trying to bring New Zealand's
broadband forward, but not so far ahead that no one uses the
brand spanking new infrastructure; trying to pump money into the
market to speed up the advent of fibre-to-the-home, but not
stopping market investment in its tracks.
Given these dangers, Joyce needs his belief that the money is worth the
projected benefits to the economy and New Zealand's ranking in the
"It isn't cheap, I agree, but we think with a judicious crown
investment we'll be able to get something happening a
number of years faster than it would have happened otherwise," he
To naysayers who wonder what on earth the average
New Zealander will do with 100Mbps, Joyce replies there is no way
of knowing where the industry will go.
"I think the history of the internet and the history of IT
frankly is that the best ideas are stabs in the dark. The only
thing we do know is that the rate of growth in processing power,
the need for storage and the need for pipes is dramatic. It always
heads towards that certain Moore's law approach," he says.
"There is a certain amount of faith with all of these things."
Joyce has the faith; perhaps his conviction comes from his
successful commercial career, which has seen him build up a radio
I think the history of the internet and the history of IT
frankly is that the best ideas are stabs in the dark.
The politician and businessman started his first radio station, Energy FM, at age 21. Together with partners he
bought up other stations and fostered their growth over 17 years. These assets built up
to become RadioWorks, with 22 local radio stations
and four national radio networks under its belt.
The company was sold to Canada's Canwest in 2001, after
which Joyce resigned as managing director, having made his
In the vacuum of retirement, Joyce turned to politics, something
he had long had an interest in. He chaired some of the National Party's
reviews, before stepping in to manage the 2005 election campaign
which saw a strong National recovery that still, however, failed to
displace Labour as the largest party in Parliament.
Joyce stepped back into the private world for two years, taking
a role as managing director of a company called Jasons Travel Media, a tourism marketing company based in Auckland.
Last year, politics drew him in again. He chaired the National
Party's 2008 national election campaign and was successfully
elected as one of five list only MPs — those who didn't have
to contest for an electorate.
After the win, he was appointed Minister for Communications and
Information Technology as well as Minister for Transport, with
Prime Minister John Key's mandate to drive the plan for the
roll-out of ultra-fast broadband.
He has leapt to it and spoken about the proposed plan to media
and industry. Yet although the goal posts
have been laid out so industry knows which way to shoot, the rules
of the game have still not been set. Joyce is currently sitting on
information such as what the government expects in the way of a
regulatory environment, whether it intends to have equity in the
project and multiple technical requirements.
That's the challenge, is for this to be iterative and not
either chilling or unnecessarily replacing private investment.
Any questions on such important matters are answered with
"You'll just have to wait and see".
"We have to go through our internal processes and test it all
thoroughly and it's not far away now," he assures
ZDNet.com.au. "The sort of issues you're raising will all
have to be addressed in the plan. It's not like we haven't
thought of them."
In the next few weeks, Joyce will lay out these plans and ask
for comment, after which the government will confirm or modify them
and start with the process of picking partners — although
what form that process would take, tender or otherwise Joyce is
unable to say.
Which makes it a waiting game for the public, media and the
industry. Joyce understands the risks this means for investment,
with the possibility that industry will hold back on investment
until it knows what is happening.
"That's the challenge, is for this to be iterative and not
either chilling or unnecessarily replacing private investment.
That's why we're taking our time to get it right and not just
rushing in the door for the sake of it, because I think there are
risks around that," Joyce says.
The fact that Joyce hopes to be underway by the end of the year
might ease concerns in that direction, but as Australian Communications
Minister Stephen Conroy has found out, things don't always move as
quickly as one wishes.
Whatever his thoughts on the Australian process, Joyce isn't ready to air them.
"It's a different plan that the Australian government is
proceeding with and it's entirely up to the Australian government
in terms of how it does its things. In the same way, I wouldn't
expect them to commentate on how we are doing things."
It can be hoped that Joyce won't be dogged with the same problems that Conroy has been faced with.
He was prepared to say that from looking globally he had
discovered that it was important to set things up as much as
possible so as to enable different organisations to be able to be a
part of different levels of the process, and that New Zealand would
benefit the most from focusing on the infrastructure layer.
"But that's not a comment in relation to the Australian
process," he says, "because I think it's a different process and
it's trying to achieve the same overall outcome, a similar overall
outcome, but by a different method."
It can be hoped that Joyce won't be dogged with the same
problems that Conroy has
been faced with: delays in providing information necessary for the
lodging of bids; the incumbent being kicked out of the process;
the financial crisis raising ugly questions on price and funding, and bushfires stopping the preferred bidder from being announced at
Germany's big show CeBIT.
Joyce may not hit the same snags, but it's certain the ride to
FttH will not be a smooth one and Conroy might secretly wish it to
be so. In typical trans-Tasman fashion, Australia and New Zealand
are going about the same thing in two different ways. If one
falters, while the other sails on, the comparisons will leave egg
on some high-up faces.