COMMENT: Last year, it became clear that New Zealand's academic network, REANNZ, was in serious trouble.
Cash-strapped universities disgruntled with the organisation started defecting to cheaper commercial network providers, sparking concerns of history repeating itself.
But having REANNZ fall over like its predecessor Tuianet doesn't seem to be an option.
Sapere Research Group was hired by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to look into how REANNZ could get out of "a precarious financial position, with costs rising to exceed revenues and poor member engagement".
In brief, the report says yes, we do need a REANNZ but it needs to be cheaper and better, and grow bigger if it's to survive. Sapere doesn't think big data producing projects such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope will come to the rescue for REANNZ, however, and there will be some difficult decisions for the academic network to make.
Not every member feels grizzly about REANNZ. Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) are happy with REANNZ, and say their work would be difficult without the academic network.
Universities, meanwhile, felt they don't need an optimised data transmission service like REANNZ which costs them four to five times more than commercial providers that enjoy economies of scale not available to the academic network.
Commercial providers are not only cheaper but their service is improving as well.
Much of the blame for the lack of appreciation for REANNZ can be laid squarely at the door, or rather the internal networks of universities, the report says.
What's the point of paying a premium for REANNZ when researchers can't turn up the bandwidth dial to 11 thanks to slow internal networks that haven't had enough invested in them to keep up with high-speed external connections?
Sapere recommends some major changes to REANNZ and it has started working through them.
Current chief executive Nicole Ferguson won't return after maternity leave. A new chief executive will be hired, and a new chair and board are in place, one of the academic network's directors, Ross Peat told me.
"We accept that we need to do things differently and better," Peat says while praising the Sapere report as a well-considered and in-depth review of REANNZ.
REANNZ is trying to "grow our relevance to users" by building a Science DMZ (demilitarised zone, which is "geeklish" for perimeter network) that reaches researchers' desktops, Peat says.
That's not a bad idea to create a direct relationship with researchers and fix the problem of slow internal networks that mean scientists would rather use their home gigabit UFB fibre connections so that they can get work done.
A more controversial suggestion by Sapere is to merge REANNZ with other organisations such as Network 4 Learning. That's to achieve economies of scale that national commercial providers enjoy. N4L is the New Zealand school network and a good deal bigger than REANNZ.
But whether the two will be happy as one remains to be seen. Peat doesn't discount Sapere's recommendation and says the feasibility of a merger, and whether it's possible technically, is being considered.
The New Zealand universities are back in the REANNZ fold again, and Peat said they will enjoy cheaper pricing thanks to lower international bandwidth costs via the Hawaiki cable.
"Our annual cost of services per petabyte of network traffic has decreased on average by 14 per cent each year over the last six years — that's a 55 per cent overall cost decrease. These savings can be attributed to cost efficiencies through scale and increasing network use," Peat said.
Sapere also recommends "a close appraisal" of how much it would cost to renew the national connectivity contract with Vocus, and looking at cheaper alternatives to the Australian provider (and presumably Spark and Vodafone's contracts too).
National connectivity is a high-margin business as it's a sunk cost for providers, so REANNZ should play hardball here to get better deals.
Commercially-provided network connectivity has come down massively in price since REANNZ started up in 2005.
With today's improved broadband service levels, especially over the government part-funded UFB fibre network, REANNZ faces tough competition and will need to reinvent itself beyond cost-cutting and lowered pricing if it is survive another 15 years.