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On faster (pricier) broadband, and NZ's Afghan delusions

Gordon Campbell on faster (pricier) broadband, and our ongoing Afghan delusions

By Gordon Campbell

As the government gradually releases the detail of its ultrafast broadband package, it is becoming clear that this initiative will not be the boon for ordinary households that the government has been painting it to be. In an interesting piece in the Sunday Star-Times on the weekend (not online) Tim Hunter pointed out one of the gateway issues : price.

According to figures last week from Communications Minister Steven Joyce, basic level ultrafast broadband will cost at least $40 a month wholesale – as compared to the circa $40-60 month retail that consumers are currently paying. As Hunter says : “Thus, it is immediately apparent that the fast fibre service will cost more than customers are currently paying.” [What Joyce said was that ‘entry level’ speed of 30 megabytes per second would cost $40 a month, while the faster 100Mbps would cost $60 dollars a month, both figures being wholesale prices.]

Take-up is therefore likely to be limited to the relatively few punters able to afford the price hike. Hunter quotes IDC Consultancy senior research manager Rosalie Nelson to that effect : “Whilst fibre will deliver greater speed and capability, international experience shows only a small number of users will pay a premium for speed – indeed the expectation is to get more broadband for the same price.”

More and faster broadband for the same price has certainly been the political expectation as well, one that the government has been fostering. The faster broadband initiative has certainly not been depicted to the public as a massive taxpayer subsidy for a service that only high income earners will be able to afford to access. True, benefits accrue to New Zealand when broadband service is improved : but as things are shaping up, relatively few households stand to capture the prime benefits.

Telecom’s precarious position – also referred to in the Hunter article –has been shored up this week by the announcement that it is now the priority candidate in negotiations to build around 80% of the network, including within the crucial competition for the main urban centres

The related rally in Telecom’s share value is now being investigated by the Stock Exchange presumably for any evidence of insider trading, given that a suspiciously large number of Telecom shares reportedly changed hands shortly before the company was named as the government’s preferred partner. This favoured role will be dependent on Telecom getting shareholder approval next year to split into two separate businesses: a retail company and a network (wholesaling) business.

So the final price for the consumer may well be largely determined by whatever good deal Telecom Retail can win for its customers from Telecom Network. Of course, there will be no collusion between these two arms in how that final price is reached.


Wasted Effort in Afghanistan

So how do the Afghan locals on the receiving end of our efforts in Afghanistan feel about our work? Plainly, we think we’re doing a great job and keep telling ourselves so in articles like this recent Dom-Post’s effort entitled“ Kiwi Effort Makes Difference in Bamiyan.”

That rosy view, as Russell Brown pointed out this week, has been strongly contested by NZ journalist Jon Stephenson, who published his own poll results in May that indicated the Bamiyan locals held rather deep misgivings about the quality of our reconstruction effort. As Brown says, Stephenson has since expanded this point into a general critique of the ‘free pass” that the New Zealand media has allegedly given to the work of our Provincial Reconstruction Team.

Since this debate is being framed as a battle over the quality of Stephenson’s polling, perhaps it is worth pointing out that far more extensive polling exists that backs up Stephenson’s position. In June, I reported at length on the (then-just released) extensive Listening Report surveys that had been conducted in Kabul city and north of Kabul, and within communities in and around Bamiyan and Badakhshan Provinces. The documentation can be accessed here.

As the Scoop posting in June showed, the Listening Report findings on Bamiyan are critical of the adequacy of our effrt – and thus offer a good defence for Stephenson from the criticisms leveled at his work by the NZ Herald columnist Garth George.

Given that New Zealand is still pumping loads of money into its Bamiyan effort, it is worth repeating the criticisms of its relative inadequacy – which as I reported, have been expressed by everyone from the province’s governor to local villagers :

Not surprisingly, the governor of Bamiyan province Habiba Sarabi, feels that secure areas like her own are being relatively neglected, as aid is funneled elsewhere to win local support amid hotly contested areas. The interesting thing is that Sarabi felt other provinces with better funded PRTs were doing far better than her own province was faring with its New Zealand PRT :

The PRT in Bamyan is led by New Zealand, which, according to Sarabi, has a relatively smaller development budget than the British PRT in Helmand.

Moreover, while the circa 500,000 residents of Bamiyan received more than $47 million in development assistance in 2008, some $15 million of that money was earmarked for building a highway linking Bamiyan, Wardak and Parwan provinces and therefore could not be counted as being for her province alone – thus further reducing the per capita spend for Bamiyan, which was already well below the spend for Kabul, and arguably for troubled Helmand province as well.

So, good intentions and ability notwithstanding, our PRT effort seems to be widely perceived as under-funded, and is thus under-delivering on the expectations it has aroused.

[Etc etc. the specific criticisms to the Listening Report team by local villagers of the under-funded work being done then follow.]

It is highly questionable – in the light of the deteriorating state of the Afghan war in general and the worsening security situation in Bamiyan – whether our PRT team in Bamiyan (or our special forces team in Kabul) are achieving anything that is sustainable, on the ground in Afghanistan.

This is not to criticize the good intentions or hard work of the PRT soldiers. Yet on the evidence, they are wasting their time and millions of taxpayer funds (and are putting their lives at risk) in self-delusory make-work. As one Bamiyan local said in response to our work there…”You wouldn’t build a road this bad in your country, why do you do it here?” Even if something is getting lost in translation, that really doesn’t sound like we’re winning the battle for hearts and minds.


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