Communications Minister Amy Adams says New Zealand’s government supported fibre network has hit the halfway point.
In a press release the minister says: “The UFB build is going from strength-to-strength, with fibre being rolled out to communities up and down the country. The project continues to be on budget and well ahead of schedule”.
There’s little question about the project being on budget that’s because Chorus shareholders have to find the lion’s share of the cost. The other network builders have to invest their own money too.
Well ahead of schedule sounds right. But that’s partly because the companies picked the low-hanging fruit first.
Anecdotally I hear the build in Auckland, which makes up more than a third of the total project, is running behind schedule. Meanwhile people living in apartments are a long way behind any schedule.
Going from strength-to-strength is debatable.
To date only one-in-eight of the people able to connect to fibre have signed-up. Given that the UFB builders cherry-picked the richest suburbs as the first to get fibre, this doesn’t bode well.
This is the streaming video peak time. It turns out the networks can’t cope with thousands of consumers all watching Netflix at the same time.
Even the fibre-onlyMyRepublic service struggles. This suggests a need for further investment in backhaul and ISP provisioning.
You could argue congestion is a sign of New Zealand’s broadband network going from strength-to-strength. It means there’s a healthy demand for data services even if consumers aren’t in a hurry to switch to fibre.
Demand to grow?
Optimists assume fibre demand will grow as streaming video gathers momentum with consumers.
There’s a remarkable Nine-to-noon interview where Katherine Ryan questions Chris Bishop, a policy and programme manager at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
Fibre battery back-up
The man looks like either a liar or a fool as Ryan repeatedly asks why the ministry forced Crown Fibre Holdings to drop a requirement for ISPs to offer customer battery back-up.
Time after time Bishop trots out an implausible line about “wanting to offer consumers a choice”. It doesn’t begin to address the issue.
Radio New Zealand had to get an official information request to find out about the ministry leaning on Crown Fibre and CFH’s response putting its objection to the ministry on the record is just as enlightening.
Ryan nails the key point when she notes that when this was happening suitable backup batteries cost around $300. If consumers thought they’d face that as an upfront cost, they wouldn’t sign for fibre.
Fibre, batteries, power cuts
The issue is tricky. You need battery backup because unlike copper telephone networks, fibre doesn’t work in a power cut. Radio NZ worries that means people can’t make emergency calls.
Yet, with mobile phone penetration now at well over 100 percent, few households would be cut-off in an emergency. Certainly not the kind of tech-savvy households in a hurry to buy fibre.
Except there are places like the recently built old people’s accommodation in Wellington that is fibre only. The residents have to sign for fibre accounts and, at first, couldn’t make regular phone calls.
Old school telephone on fibre
Spark came to the UFB project’s rescue selling what is effectively a virtual plain old-fashioned telephone service over a fibre connection product. Any ISP could offer a similar product, the technology was baked-in to the UFB design from day one, but the others have chosen not to invest in that area.
That still leaves the problem of fibre failing in a power cut, but then so does everything else. We’re dependent on electricty. After the Christchurch earthquakes the mobile carriers used portable generators to power cell sites. People still had to find ways to charge their mobile phones.
While we’re on the subject of the copper tax some sources have reported the government has made heavy-handed threats of retailiation if that term ever surfaces again in public debate. Clearly it touched a nerve. And that’s something that wouldn’t have happened if the UFB network was genuinely going from strength-to-strength.
There’s is a lot that’s right about the UFB network. It’s a great idea. For the most part it’s been well executed. But let’s not delude ourselves. It’s not perfect, nor is it going from strength-to-strength. Not yet.