Educating New Zealanders on opportunities broadband offers will hasten progress to a digital economy, writes Brett O'Riley
The debate about broadband infrastructure is now moving on from one of whether it will be constructed to what services broadband will enable, and what it could achieve for New Zealanders.
Broadband is a core platform for an economy to grow in the 21st century.
All of our major trading partners are making huge investments in their platforms - Australia, USA, Japan, Korea, China, Malaysia and Singapore among them. They are also investing in new services and pilot programmes to explore the potential opportunities that broadband will enable.
Helping New Zealanders understand these opportunities has been made difficult by the fact that the information and communications technologies (ICT) sector tends to talk in technical jargon and acronyms. This has been to the detriment of a clear understanding of what ICT can offer.
Broadband and its related applications, hardware and services is changing the relationship between economic activity and social life. We need to inform consumers and businesses on the uses of broadband services and applications.
ICT is a complex industry. The group that represents the information and communication technologies sector, NZICT, aims to address some of these issues.
We recently released a paper that mapped out a number of recommendations for the public and private sectors.
Most of these recommendations revolve around improved broadband infrastructure and improving the understanding of broadband.
The Government sees this as a key area for New Zealand's economic growth, with a commitment to invest about $1.5 billion in broadband. If we get it right, then this will be the largest single nation-building infrastructure project in New Zealand's history.
This will enable the expansion of what we call the "digital economy". This is based on an economy of goods and services being traded electronically. The information highway that is broadband and what it offers is not only limited to business.
It offers a range of personal applications and services that can improve everyday New Zealanders' lives.
In only a few years, we've come to rely on the internet and email as an integral means of communication.
New developments such as location-based technologies will change the internet into what is termed "the internet of things", meaning that a range of everyday devices will become interconnected.
Imagine if all of your home devices and appliances were interconnected, where you could use your mobile phone to turn on your heating or close the blinds before you get home on a cold winter's day.
Over the next few years as networks become faster, there will be an explosion of applications and services that will improve and enhance our personal lives.
Fast, ubiquitous broadband will assist new and existing businesses. We will be able to eyeball customers in other locations and countries sitting at our desk, beamed in via advanced video links (we call it "tele-presence") without having to jump on a plane. It will also increase productivity through the proliferation of applications and services and drive innovation.
We are going to help explore this potential with a pilot programme in partnership with TVNZ and our members, called Streetsmart. This will demonstrate the power of fibre by offering 21st century services to small businesses, schools and residences in selected locations around the country.
On the international front, broadband will propel New Zealand's export portfolio into the future. New sectors are already emerging like game development, movies for mobile phones, software as a service, web applications and emissions monitoring.
The Deloitte Fast 500 technology companies' index included 51 New Zealand companies - making us the best performing country per capita.
We need to make sure we have the infrastructure, and access to inputs like capital, to allow these companies to expand internationally without having to leave New Zealand.
Countries like Singapore and Korea are doing well in propagating their digital economies. Korea recently announced that ICT would soon make up 30 per cent of the country's overall exports.
While New Zealand doesn't have the same industrial ICT focus as some of our Asian neighbours, the Deloitte index highlights the opportunity to carve out our own digital trade and export niches.
As we move towards a more digitised economy, it does not mean that we should detract from our existing major industries such as tourism and agriculture.
Digital applications and services assist with operations in these sectors. Companies like Fonterra and Tatua have retained their market edge through clever application of technology. We can also create opportunities to export these technologies.
The transmission of data and measurement from remote sources can be expanded in major primary production industries. Imagine every sheep, cow or tree monitored remotely to determine location, growth and factors inhibiting growth.
Goods can be tracked from the farm gate to the dining room table anywhere around the globe. The dairy industry has already demonstrated the potential for quality control with remote milk vat monitoring on farms.
This can be expanded with the combination of fibre and wireless communications.There are also a number of other opportunities for the dairy industry.
It is well known that the dairy sector is a major contributor to CO2 emissions in New Zealand. We could implement methane digester technology on to our farms and use this as a way to supply electricity.
This would not only create renewable energy but also offer dairy farmers another source of income. The US Government has indicated that it will use this technology to cut its emissions by 25 per cent by 2020.
New Zealand should be investing in the research and development of this technology to not only cut our own emissions but create an export industry of this technology and others.
Tourism can be expanded with video access and location-based services for assets and facilities, including their promotion to visitors. The proliferation of wireless infrastructure will assist with location-based services in the industry.
Bring on the digital economy with all of the benefits it can bring to New Zealand.
* Brett O'Riley is chief executive of NZICT (New Zealand Information and Communication Technologies Group), an industry association made up of more than 80 New Zealand ICT companies.