Sir John Key: Ultra Fast Broadband programme has been fantastic, but the job is not done

OPINION:

The period I spent in the Beehive feels like a lifetime ago. I’m not one to sit in my metaphorical rocking chair (or golf cart!) and reflect on past achievements, but one thing I’m very proud of is the decision we made to roll out Ultra Fast Broadband.

I vividly recall sitting in my office in the Beehive discussing whether we should press go on the UFB programme. There were concerns that there was just no appetite for such a massive infrastructure programme. Could New Zealand actually deliver a once-in-a-generation project such as this? Could we justify spending more than $1.5 billion of taxpayer money?

Fast forward to today, with the Ultra Fast Broadband rollout close to completion, it staggers me what we have achieved. I understand that not only will the project be delivered on time, but also within budget.

I urge you to look at any major infrastructure project across NZ, or around the world, for that matter, and tell me just how many have been delivered not just on time, but within budget. It just doesn’t happen.

The fact that Chorus, Enable, Tuatahi First Fibre and Northpower managed to do this, all under the watchful eye of Crown Infrastructure Partners, is a credit to them. You only have to look across the Tasman to see how not to do it!

World-class connectivity is a necessity. It’s an essential part of New Zealand’s growing economic and social infrastructure, and even more integral for our rural communities.

That need for connectivity has never been more glaring than during the last 18 months as New Zealanders and the rest of the world have endured the Covid-19 pandemic.

The public private partnership that has led to the development of the Ultra Fast Broadband network across 87 per cent of New Zealand has provided a level of resilience and foresight that we are now reaping significant benefits from.

Media articles that I’ve read with each lockdown have consistently highlighted that broadband traffic spiked to record levels, and average data use grew. There were peaks every hour, as meetings began, workers joined video calls and content was shared online.
All I can say is thank goodness for fibre!

Fibre is as essential to New Zealand’s economy as roads and railways and Covid has reinforced that. The ability for millions of Kiwis to be able to work from home, home school their children and connect with family and friends during the pandemic has been massive and shouldn’t be underestimated. Fibre is the gold standard when it comes to broadband.

As the build comes to an end, it’s hard not to reflect on what’s been achieved but also give a note of caution that the job’s not done.

One of the main drivers for me when deciding to start the UFB programme was that New Zealand’s small size and distance from other countries would make it hard for us to compete with the rest of the world. In these Covid times, this is even starker. But the investment in UFB is now helping us overcome both of these things.

On a social level, fibre broadband connects people in remote locations with the world, offering better prospects for employment, and better access to life-enhancing services like remote healthcare.Families that have been kept apart by closed borders have shared the good times and bad times remotely. While we all know that you can’t beat being together in person, an online alternative is a far better option than a phone call or pen and paper.

Broadband investment like this has also given younger generations more opportunities and incentives to stay in their communities rather than move to urban areas.

But while fibre is available to nearly nine out of ten New Zealanders, we need to talk about how we keep this going. We need to think about what can be done for the remaining New Zealanders without access to fibre.

For the foreseeable future increased reliance on connectivity will be our new normal. This pandemic has illustrated unknown risks that we face and need to prepare for. Digital resilience must be a crucial part of our preparedness as a country, and it is more important than ever that we have widespread high-speed connectivity to support this.

I fear is that we are in danger of establishing a permanent digital divide between urban and rural New Zealand.

There is still a substantial number of New Zealanders without access to high-speed reliable internet, which has been exposed during the recent lockdowns. Those without fibre are potentially more isolated from friends and family, and face greater challenges working from home and continuing their education.

We must persist to expand this infrastructure; it is the first step to closing the digital divide. Leaving people behind, without access to the internet, could create a lasting digital divide that would hold the country back.

Fibre right to the home is bringing huge gains in productivity, innovation, and global reach for New Zealand. Those are the things that will make our economy richer. Those are the things that will ensure New Zealand families keep up with the rest of the world and stay connected regardless of the obstacles that occur.

Congratulations to all those involved in this phase of Aotearoas’s connectivity, that’s an effort to be proud of.

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