Steve McCabe: In an internet ghetto far away...

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The Southern Cross cable comes ashore on Takapuna beach. Photo / Russell Smith
The Southern Cross cable comes ashore on Takapuna beach. Photo / Russell Smith

While there is, indisputably, much to love about life in New Zealand, there is no escaping the fact that internet access in this country is inadequate.

There's no sense in trying to dress this point up with euphemism or balance or mitigating circumstances. Internet access in New Zealand is very poor.

There are reasons, of course, and these reasons do stem from the fact that we live, as we often remind ourselves, on a couple of very small islands in a huge ocean.

But while this fact is inescapable, it becomes, after a while, more of an excuse than simply a fact offered in mitigation.

Internet connectivity between New Zealand and the outside world is mediated, for the most part, by a small number of underwater cables.

Takapuna and Whenuapai form our two nodes in the loop that is the Southern Cross Cable, linking us to Hawaii and, ultimately, California to the northeast and Australia to the west.

And that's pretty much it.

The Government has recognised the need to revamp our connectivity.

Its plans for an ultra-fast broadband network are admirable, and the idea of an always-on 100-megabit-a-second connection to our home network fills my heart with joy, not least because my wife's job as a tele-commuting web designer could become so much easier.

But a domestic broadband initiative, admirable though it may be, is not enough.

Imagine the Government providing every adult in New Zealand with a new Ferrari. Now imagine every single road in every single city replaced with perfectly smooth, flat, straight, wide avenues.

Wonderful, I'm sure you'll agree. Just like our much-vaunted ultra-fast broadband scheme.

But now imagine that every single road between towns is blocked and replaced with single-lane dirt tracks.

That, I am afraid, is where we will be headed unless the Government rethinks New Zealand's internet strategy.

The announcement made last year by the then-Minister for Communications and Information Technology, Steven Joyce, was ambitious, promising us a world-class internet infrastructure.

But it addressed only intra-national networking.

We will be able to share information within the country with unprecedented and unrivalled speed - but when we try to talk to the outside world, nothing will change.

An ultra-high-speed connection is only as fast as its slowest point, and unless we address the bottlenecks that are an inevitable fact of our geography, the money spent on Mr Joyce's plan will be, to a degree at least, wasted.

So how could that money better be spent?

The Southern Cross Cable, our primary data artery to the rest of the world, cost US$1 billion ($1.27 billion) to build. Mr Joyce's plan is budgeted at $1.5 billion.

The Government is clearly willing to invest sums similar to those required for a new cable.

And new cables would be a more sensible first step towards building a world-class internet presence for New Zealand.

The Crown realises the wisdom of this approach. Research and Education Advanced Network New Zealand, a state-owned entity, has invested in Pacific Fibre, a local business which has seen the huge need for increased capacity into New Zealand and started making plans for a second transpacific cable, this time from Sydney to Los Angeles, via Auckland and Samoa.

Pacific Cable has costed the project at less than half a billion dollars, or less than a third of the sum Mr Joyce says has been set aside for the Government's domestic project.

New Zealand's internet infrastructure does, indeed, need updating.

But so does our international connectivity.

Apple's recent unveiling of its new iCloud online service only serves to remind us that the future of computing is being built online, with or without us.

New Zealand must make a choice, and that choice must be made carefully, and soon.

We can spend a large sum on a fantastic local network, but leave it so vulnerable and isolated from the rest of the world that a single heavy storm such as the one that hit Southern Cross Cable's Oregon facility in 2007 can halve our international bandwidth.

Or we can take some of that money and invest in cabling connecting us with North America, with Australia and with Japan,South Korea and China.

One of these options will make us true citizens of the net, able to compete on an equal footing.

The other will leave us very well connected within an internet ghetto.

Steve McCabe is a teacher and freelance computer consultant with no financial interest in the second cable project.

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