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Anderton: TUANZ Rural Broadband Symposium

To the TUANZ Rural Broadband Symposium. Timaru, 28 March 2006.

Good morning everyone.

I had intended to be with you in person today, and when I couldn't attend your conference because of other commitments, I thought I'd take some of my own advice about innovation and speak to you via a video link from the Beehive.

So, it's more than somewhat ironic that with the current debate about the uptake of broadband Internet and the potential benefits on offer that we're apparently missing out on, that I've had to pre-record this address instead of delivering it via the Internet because the necessary ISDN phone line was not available in Timaru.

Of course, I'm also cautious about doing a pre-recorded address at a time when Osama Bin Laden's got that market cornered.

But in a way, my dilemma also demonstrates where we need to get to. It's a need widely acknowledged - by the Government, telecommunications companies, Internet users - that the potential of Information technology to improve our businesses, our way of life, is enormous.

And there's a simple reason why we should go for it.

It is simply stupid to be shackled, as I have been today, by inferior technology when we live in an age that is defined by the ready availability of information at all levels of society.

We all agree that as far as New Zealand's report card on ICT goes, the phrase "could to better' about sums it up.

There are quite legitimate concerns about the future fortunes of those isolated from the potential benefits on offer from Information technology, whether it is due to location, ethnicity, income or age, and concern about what impact that will have on New Zealand as a whole.

Fears that New Zealand is being left behind in the drag race down the information superhighway are well founded, but being a snail's pace nation in a cyberspace world is not an option. But I don't need to tell you that.

What you've asked me to do is draw on my experience as Minister responsible for the primary production portfolios to talk about the potential for the productivity of our rural sectors.

Our economy has long been underpinned by the success of our primary produce exports for almost all of our history. It is the bedrock on which the rest of our economy - manufacturing, processing, biotechnology, research, transport, finance and a myriad of other services rest.

Even in the last 15 years the primary sector has grown in productivity faster than the average of the rest of the economy.

Science is increasingly important in developing new varieties and in improving yields and managing production. It is only through innovation, skills and ideas that we will maintain a primary sector capable of giving us competitive global incomes.

Our future success will depend on making the best use of all the tools available to give us a competitive edge, and it is my job to make sure that where opportunities exist, that our primary industries are able to leverage them to their fullest extent.

There has been much recent debate about Broadband and the roles of the participants, and potential solutions to the problem. This debate of course arose because Telecom owns the local loop - the copper wire network that links New Zealand's homes and businesses by telephone.

Competitors say this gives Telecom an unfair advantage. Telecom says that allowing competitors access to the local loop with the aim of increasing competition and infrastructure investment would only see competitors focusing on high-revenue urban centres and that rural centres, to which they are required to provide services, would miss out.

There is no silver bullet for New Zealand's Internet problems. To me, the unbundling debate is largely irrelevant to rural communities and becomes even more irrelevant the more isolated they are. The experts tell me that broadband in rural areas, in the foreseeable future anyway, is unlikely to be best delivered by landline.

Research commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in 2000 via a mail survey of New Zealand rural delivery locations (which drew a 20 percent response rate of 3000 returns) found:

About 54% of respondents reported problems affecting telephone lines, including noise, electric fences and exchange overload.

Telephone line infrastructure problems get worse the further from the exchange people lived. Reported problems increased from 44% for those living within five kilometers of an exchange to an unexpectedly high 82% for those living over 30 kilometres away. These issues affected use of newer technologies such as Internet because of the need for higher quality lines.

The research also concluded that copper wire would continue to provide the main local access to the network in rural areas for the foreseeable future, and that while investment in fibre-optic cable by a number of companies would provide direct benefit to provincial centres, it would not do so for smaller towns and certainly not for individual rural properties.

While new technologies will continue to be developed, they will largely focus on the high value areas because of revenue considerations.

Yet despite those figures, more than half of those who responded were optimistic that telecommunications technologies like the Internet would be available and provide them with benefits in the future.

They have every right to expect as much. We cannot afford to allow rural New Zealand to be left behind. Rural communities are more important to New Zealand than they are to most other nations. We are one of the few developed nations in the world with a biologically-based economy - and that has its home in rural areas. It's the reason we call Rural New Zealand the "heartland".

The Internet promises to be of immense benefit to rural communities and business, and therefore our economy. In succeeding as a trading nation we need to add value, be market led, responsive and adaptable. The Internet will allow us to harness our creativity, participate in global networks that will help to maximize our potential and ensure we adapt more rapidly to change.

Despite the doom and gloom of the broadband debate, I'm here today - virtually anyway - to tell you progress is being made. The launch of iPSTAR, the world's largest commercial satellite, now means there is no farm, rural building or business anywhere in New Zealand that lies beyond a broadband link of some kind. Already we're seeing the benefits. Consider the example of Landcorp:

It has 112 farm sites throughout the country. All are connected - 77 by satellite broadband, the remainder by a combination of ADSL and BCL wireless broadband.

Connectivity allows weather stations to send the operations room information on soil temperature, rainfall and sunshine hours. It's all done automatically.

There is no interference from electric fences like there was with dial-up technology.

The ops room can in turn quickly analyse potential feed shortages and determine, for example if a certain cow is producing more or less milk.

This is the sort of difference connectivity can make to the rural sector.

Consider the advantages for flower growers to link with bulk growers around the world. Buyers are able to browse colours and varieties before they are even cut and have them shipped the same day.

Consider the potential for supermarkets to access information about fresh produce, fruit and berries, even cuts of meat, and order it over the net.

Surgeons are already able to take operating theatres back into communities that lost surgical services long ago. They can perform operations with advice from a specialist - who may not even be in New Zealand - via video link.

Rural and remote schools are seeing the benefits of PROJECT PROBE, one of a number of ongoing initiatives designed to encourage broadband uptake - including the subsequent Digital Strategy and Broadband Challenge.

The project identified about 900 schools where high-speed internet was not available and has enabled every school in New Zealand to have access to broadband. Rather than just connecting the schools, it has brought broadband into rural communities.

Schools in remote areas are receiving a similar level of service to that which is currently available in urban centres. In particular the roll out through satellite (ICONZ) has enabled 65 remote schools to access broadband services.

The speed and 'always on' characteristics of the broadband connection enables teachers to be able to reliably use a wealth of digital resources and services to help develop learning programmes to support the needs of these young learners. Resources include highly interactive digital learning objects, the New Zealand Online Encyclopaedia, video conferencing and virtual field trips.

In short it means better teaching, better administration, and better teachers. Enabling remote schools to continue to access affordable broadband services contributes to the Government's goal of achieving upper-quartile OECD broadband performance by 2010.

PROJECT PROBE will also support the retention of young people in rural communities and positively impact on community and business development. The people in schools, businesses and homes to gain most benefit from this digital opportunity will be those in rural areas currently lacking digital access.

It's fair to say that not all schools have taken up this opportunity. There are some barriers - primarily cost. Some schools believe they can't afford $100 per month. Others are still not sure of the educational benefit, while some lack the confidence to use ICT's in their work.

But the potential is enormous. The question for us all is how we get there. It's going to take some innovation.

Fortunately New Zealanders - and rural New Zealanders in particular - are no strangers to that. Just over 100 years ago, not far from where you sit today, a Waitohi farmer-turned-inventor called Richard Pearse raised a few eyebrows when he managed a powered take-off in his entirely home-made flying machine powered by an engine partly made of irrigation pipe.

History records that the landing was a bit less successful and Pearse seriously injured his shoulder when he crashed into a hedge. Not surprisingly, the neighbours called him "Mad Pearse".

A few years earlier William Saltau Davidson proved the doubters wrong when the first shipment of refrigerated meat made it to the United Kingdom. Both were milestones of a pioneering Kiwi "can do" culture.

New Zealand is the most isolated developed country in the world. Distance is both our greatest disadvantage and our unique advantage. It has helped us breed a culture of self-reliance and we're used to having the freedom to try things out. It has made us more creative and emphasized our uniqueness - qualities which are becoming more valuable in the global economy.

Just as refrigerated shipping brought our farms closer to markets in the late nineteenth century, the Internet is doing the same in the early twenty-first. We cannot afford to isolate ourselves from information with limited Internet access.

Ernest Rutherford said: "In New Zealand we don't have a lot of money, so we have to think." Last year a Taranaki farmer did just that, establishing a local line-of-sight wireless Internet system without spending a lot of money.

That farmer, like those before him, proved that solutions are possible. Of course, we don't expect them to be provided - in the romantic tradition of great invention - by one person beavering away by candlelight in a clapped-out old shed.

Now, I'm no for a minute suggesting that farmers shouldn't be romantic... I'm just saying that in today's society, that notion of innovation is wrong. When we work together, we are capable of even bigger and better things. We are making progress.

These examples I've given you are, of course, only signposts of where we can get to. Yes, we need to improve, but we can do it. New Zealanders have never been known to say "We can't". Richard Pearse didn't listen to his neighbours. William Saltau Davidson never listened when doubters said refrigerated shipping would never happen. They got on with the job. And so are we.

Best wishes to you all for a successful conference.

ENDS

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