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Spark jump low-cost fixed wireless broadband

Spark New Zealand will give subsided broadband to at least 5000 struggling families.

The families will each get 30GB of data a month for $15 on a pre-paid, no fixed-term Spark Jump contract. The price also includes a modem.

Spark will use Skinny Broadband. The company’s no-frills subsidiary offers wireless broadband using the 4G mobile network.

Risk of digital exclusion

The company says it won’t pick which families get the subsidised broadband service. Community groups and government agencies will identify families at risk of digital exclusion.

Simon Moutter, Spark’s managing director, says: “We believe New Zealand children deserve to have the opportunity to learn and thrive in the modern digital economy. Spark Jump is our way of helping solve this digital divide, by ensuring children have digital access both at school and in the home.

He says Spark wants to use technology to unleash the potential in all New Zealanders.

Families in Christchurch and Auckland have taken part in a successful pilot in recent months.

Spark’s registered charity, the Spark Foundation will partner with local community-based organisations. These groups will identify eligible families.

Manaiakalani Education Trust

Spark Foundation chair Nick Leggett says the project developed from a four-year partnership with the Manaiakalani Education Trust.

He says: “Our work with Manaiakalani has shown that the lack of home broadband is a barrier to New Zealand children’s learning and that whanau engagement plays a big role in children’s educational success.

“By enabling whanau to support digital learning with home broadband, we can help build on the effectiveness of the government’s efforts to improve broadband access within schools, through the rollouts of ultrafast fibre and the Network for Learning (N4L) managed network.”

Spark says the aim to provide services for at least 5,000 families in the next year. It plans to work with government agencies to extend the project’s reach.

New Zealand’s digital divide

While Spark’s contribution is welcome, it highlights the problem getting broadband to poorer New Zealanders. It’s great news for the 5,000 or so Spark Jump families.

Yet by some estimates, that is one tenth of the number of poorer New Zealanders who don’t have broadband. The 2013 NZ Census reports there were 62,000 households with school-aged children which said they did not have home broadband or which did not specify whether they had broadband.  

Broadband exclusion a problem for schools and teachers dealing with students from poorer homes. Computers and other digital tools are now commonplace in the classroom. Most schools have fast fibre broadband. Schools often ask students to work on digital projects. That’s fine during the school day. But while better-off children can go home and continue their work, poorer students don’t have the opportunity.

No plan to prepare for digital age

Xero managing director Anna Curzon writes in for Stuff:

“It’s about time digital technology was recognised as an important topic of education because it’s crucial we prepare our next generation for tomorrow’s world.”

Someone could have written the same words any time in the last 40 years. It’s not a new idea. People said the same when I was at school in the 1970s. We ran similar comments when I edited The Dominion’s Computer Pages in the 1980s.

The idea is no more crucial today than it was before. Imagine how many Xeros, Vends and Orions we could have now if government listened then.

The difference is that we now have a vibrant home-grown technology sector to show the benefits technology-savvy citizens can bring.

Role models

We also now have successful role models; articulate industry leaders able to argue the case for technology. Curzon is one of them.

They run companies that bring in valuable export dollars. Their contribution to the economy is more reliable than the bust-boom cycles from, say, the dairy industry.

That alone should get them a hearing.

It’s chilling that after the effort industry leaders and others have put into explaining this, the Minister of Education and her officials ignored them.

There’s always a danger when industries push sector-based education agenda. It would be a disaster if, say, dairy leaders talked schools into adding dairy-farming to the curriculum.

Yet digital technology is hardly special pleading. It is as fundamental to the 21st century as reading, writing and arithmetic. These days digital technology is reading, writing and arithmetic.

Microsoft Teched Auckland

TechEd, now running in Auckland, is New Zealand largest technology event. By at least one important measure, the local event is a world-beater.

Microsoft NZ managing director Paul Muckleston says 2,500 delegates attended this year’s TechEd. We rarely see anything on this scale.

That’s a capacity crowd at the Sky City Convention Centre. Un-New Zealand like queues form for escalators before the day’s first sessions and there are long lines for lunch. Local bars and restaurants are packed when the day finishes. The expo space is busy even while the nine or so simultaneous sessions are running.

Room for even more

Muckleston says he looks forward to when the new centre opens as he thinks he could get more people along. That’s plausible, tickets for the event generally sell out – a sure sign demand outstrips supply.

Although there have been many Microsoft TechEd events around the world, the New Zealand conference is one of seven held in 2013.

It’s not the largest, the US event attracts a crowd of around 7,000. TechEd Europe has about 5,000 attendees and in earlier years the Australian TechEd – usually held on the Gold Coast – gets a crowd around 2,800.

Which means in population-adjusted terms, Microsoft New Zealand beats its international counterparts by a long shot.

Mighty morphin’ TechEd

There are unflattering reasons for the relative popularity of the New Zealand event. Some point out there aren’t as many competing events in this country as elsewhere.

That view misses the point. Microsoft New Zealand is expert at engaging with local customers. It does this well – in larger markets the company can often seem distant and distracted, here you can just get people on the phone or run into them at events like TechEd.

Microsoft marketing director Frazer Scott says TechEd has been running for 18 years in New Zealand and the company has worked hard to ensure it stays fresh. He says Microsoft changes the emphasis and the approach every year to keep people coming back.

Substantial investment

The company enjoys better a better relationship with partners and customers here than overseas. This is only partly explained by the nation’s smallness or the tight-knitedness of the tech community.

Consider the commitment. One company sent more than 160 employees to the conference, many have dozens of staff at the event. At $1900 a ticket – although there are group discounts – that’s a big investment by any standards. Scott says Microsoft doesn’t aim to make money from the conference, although in a good year it does cover the costs of putting on the event.  And don’t forget it means almost an entire week where staff time can’t be billed to clients.

Companies see TechEd as a training exercise – which makes sense, after all, TechEd is short for technical education.

ZDNet Australia reports Google Australia calls for mandatory comp sci until year 10. The aim is to reverse the falling numbers of university computer science students.:

Google has called upon the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) to increase the exposure of Australian primary and secondary school students to computer science, by making the new Digital Technologies subject mandatory from kindergarten until year 10.

If falling university computer science rolls is a problem – I’m not convinced it is – then the problem is not whether school children were force-fed the subject. It’ll be more because students view the courses as dull and unrewarding or because they don’t see a positive future for comp sci graduates.

These issues need addressing before teachers frog-march kiddies to compulsory programming or whatever.

Also, if government decides there’s a strategic need to train more young people in computer science, then subsidise fees for the course – that’ll work out a lot cheaper and more effective than any alternative.

 

There are two reasons why I’m looking forward to next month’s WordCamp New Zealand 2010.

First, I expect to expand my WordPress know-how. I use the software to manage other websites. You can run a WordPress site with zero technical knowledge, but I want to dig deeper.

While raw knowledge is useful, that’s not the only reason I’m going to WordCamp.

At WordCamp I’ll meet dozens of like-minded people grappling with similar issues. We’ll swap ideas and experiences. In some cases I’ll be doing the learning. In others I’ll be doing the teaching. Either way, our collective pool of knowledge will increase.

I’ve found this way of learning motivates me. I’ll come away with extra knowledge and fresh ideas, but I’ll also be charged-up.

There’s another great aspect to this kind of learning. Although it is busy, it gives you the time and mental space to reflect on what you already know. You can view things from a different perspective and to pull the various threads together.