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Getting more New Zealanders online is the government’s goal with its Digital Inclusion Blueprint. The plan is to bridge the digital divide and make sure people don’t miss out as more and more vital services move on to the internet.

Government Digital Services Minister Megan Woods launched the blueprint on Friday.

She says: “Some people can’t easily apply for jobs as many recruitment processes start online. Kids may be prevented from doing their homework.

“Others could feel isolated from more digitally savvy friends and family who communicate using social media. We want to ensure no one is left out or left behind as more and more of our lives move online.”

Life hard without a connection

She is right. It is already hard to do simple everyday things without an internet connection. It will get harder.

Even something as simple as arranging for a council rubbish pick-up or buying insurance is difficult without an internet connection.

We tend to underestimate the number of New Zealanders without internet access. In part that’s because of the way government collects official information. Much of it is now done through the web.

When it isn’t, officials often collect data by phone. The problem here is that people without home internet connections are often the same people who don’t have mobile phones.

More offline than you might think

At the 20/20 Trust, Bill Dashfield says at least 11 percent of the population do not use the internet. This group is likely to include older, poorer, rural and non-Pākehā New Zealanders. That makes for a digital divide.

Woods says: “Access to online service is a key priority is one of my priorities and an area Government has already invested in. For example, the Prime Minister recently announced $21 million funding for Regional Digital Hubs (RDHs) in towns to connect local people and businesses to digital services.

This is a good start. It helps that the government supported ultra-fast broadband programme now extends further into rural New Zealand. Eventually about 85 percent of the country will get fibre. Almost everyone else will have better broadband, either in the shape of fixed wireless or improved copper connections.

InternetNZ Jordan Carter zoomed in on one aspect of the divide in a press release.

Call for action on digital divide

He says; “We welcome, in particular, the development of Te Whata Kōrero. It’s a call to action for tāngata whenua to work alongside the government to provide leadership on digital inclusion”.

Moreover, he nails the biggest problem: funding.

Previous governments managed to find close to $2 billion to build UFB and the other broadband improvement projects. Now it has to earmark money to make sure everyone can reap the benefits of fibre and other fast broadband technologies.

The good news is it won’t cost anything like $2 billion. Even five percent of that will pay for a lot of small local initiatives. Small projects are the best way to get people across the digital divide. It will be a lot cheaper than maintaining offline government services for jobs that are better done online.

Let’s hope there are funds in the budget to pay for this.

Communications Minister Kris Faafoi says New Zealand could ban Huawei from building 5G mobile networks. In New Zealand could bar Huawei Newsroom reports:

Faafoi said that companies had approached him saying they would like to use Huawei’s technology, but he said New Zealand could ultimately follow Australia in barring the company from contracts relating to crucial infrastructure.

“We’re obviously cognisant of the concerns the Australian authorities have had. It’s a pretty crucial piece of infrastructure for the future of the mobile network,” Faafoi said.

Australia and the US already ban Huawei from building communications networks.

Huawei is best known in New Zealand for its mobile phones. The new Huawei Mate 20 Pro is arguably the best Android phone on the market today.

Network hardware

The company’s main business is making the behind-the-scenes hardware that runs telecommunications networks.

A little Huawei equipment is in the UFB broadband network. But that’s small compared to Huawei’s role providing hardware for the 2degrees and Spark 4G mobile networks.

Huawei is a private company. It is Chinese. Some critics say it has links with the Chinese military. Huawei denies those links are active.

What it can’t deny is that it operates from a base in a totalitarian country where pressure can be applied to even the largest independent business.

That said, by law large US companies like Amazon and Microsoft must hand information stored on cloud servers over to US government agencies on demand.

GridAKL Huawei
Huawei’s GridAKL shows the company is keen to be a good corporate citizen

Spooks

Our partners in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance are uneasy about Huawei playing an important role in New Zealand’s key communications infrastructure.

There’s no evidence that Huawei uses its telecommunications equipment to spy on voice or data traffic. There is evidence of Chinese state-sponsored online intelligence gathering elsewhere.

China’s government doesn’t need to use Huawei to snoop, it has other options as Juha Saarinen points out in his NZ Herald story.

If anything, China’s government is likely to want to protect Huawei’s brand. After all, Huawei is a potent demonstration of China’s technical and economic prowess. It is a global giant with the potential to be as influential in technology as Apple, Google, Microsoft or, in its day, IBM.

Huawei New Zealand

Huawei has a close relationship with both Spark and 2degrees. Earlier this year, Huawei and Spark held an impressive demonstration of next generation 5G mobile network technology in Wellington.

Spark expects to build a new 5G network in time for the America’s Cup. It is negotiating with potential hardware partners. Huawei will be on the short list.

There is also trade protectionism behind the pressure for a ban. It suits US economic interests to spread doubt about Chinese equipment makers.

Nokia is not an US company, but somewhere in the conglomerate is the remains of Lucent, which was Bell Labs. At one time that was another American prestige brand. There are US jobs at stake.

Huawei ban problems

Banning Huawei is harder than it seems. The company dominates communications network hardware. Its products and services are often cheaper and better than those from its rivals.

Huawei has been so successful and risen so fast that today its only serious competitor for network hardware is Nokia. That company was Finnish and still has headquarters there. Nowadays Nokia is a multinational. It is made up of businesses that struggled to compete with Huawei on their own.

There’s also Sweden’s Ericsson, but that had faded from the scene before the Huawei spying fuss blew up. It has revived a little since with carriers unable to buy from Huawei looking afresh at its wares.

Meanwhile, Samsung has entered the network equipment market, in part to capitalise on the anti-Huawei sentiment.

Push up prices

Huawei is competitive on price. Ban Huawei and there’s less pressure for Nokia to sharpen its pencil.

A ban will increase the price of building next generation networks. It gives carriers fewer options and less opportunity to differentiate their networks from rivals.

Over the next decade or so New Zealand’s three main carriers will spend the thick end of a billion dollars upgrading phone networks. Equipment makers like Huawei only get a small slice of the pie. Even so we are talking in tens of millions. Keeping Huawei out of the picture will add millions to the cost.

Technology

You can also argue that Huawei has a technical edge over its rivals. Without Huawei we won’t be getting the best possible networks. Our carriers certainly won’t have as much choice when it comes to planning network infrastructure.

There is another practical argument against Huawei, although it is not a justification for banning the company. An unshackled Huawei is so strong that it could soon become a dominant near monopoly in network hardware in much the same way that IBM once dominated computer hardware. That’s not desirable.

Spyware?

Despite all this, the big question remains: Is Huawei spying?

We don’t know.

We do know the Chinese spy on communications networks. So do other powerful governments. Hell, our intelligence service does it too.

Whether a private company is helping the spooks is almost neither here nor there.

Even if it is not spying today, Huawei could be pressured by a future Chinese regime to hand over its keys to spooks. As mentioned earlier, US law requires the likes of Amazon, Microsoft and IBM to let American security agencies look at data stored in the cloud.

Huawei not alone

That said, there are no guarantees the other hardware companies are not also spying. We know Facebook, Google, Amazon and others collect vast amounts of information on us without much fuss. Perhaps this is how the world operates in 2018, that all information is, in effect, considered fair game.

There is one way we can guard against this and that would be to use strong encryption.

Weirdly under the circumstances, Western governments are moving to ban us from encrypting our data. They want to be able to spy on us. At the same time they warn us that other nations are spying.

If Huawei and China are such a threat isn’t that an argument for upping our encryption game?

Huawei phones

What message does a ban, even a potential ban, of Huawei network equipment send us about Huawei mobile phones?

Part of the deal with any Android handset is that you have to give over a lot of information to get the benefits of an operating system that knows your preferences.

Could some of that data passing through a Huawei handset end up with Chinese state security organisations? If anything, this could be a bigger worry.

Huawei is the third largest phone brand in New Zealand. It struggles to sell phones in countries where there is a network hardware ban. A government imposed ban will have a knock-on effect there too.

The Telecommunications Bill going through Parliament sets the tone for New Zealand’s fibre era.

By 2022 around 87 percent of New Zealand’s population will have access to fibre.

Many homeowners and businesses have already chosen to connect to fibre. This month Statistics New Zealand reported one in three broadband connections are now fibre. That’s up from one in eight connections two years ago.

According to the most recent Broadband Deployment Update from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, uptake is now 44.1 percent. In some regions uptake is already higher than 50 percent.

The numbers continue to climb.

Fibre is only likely to get more popular with Spark buying up sports broadcast rights. Early next year the company will launch an app so viewers can watch Rugby, Football and Formula One racing online in high-definition. Other sport will follow.

Fibre everywhere

I’m not sticking my head out here by saying I expect half of all New Zealanders to have fibre connections by 2022. The number could be higher.

By then Spark will have a 5G mobile network, other mobile carriers could also offer fast mobile broadband and fixed wireless services with fibre-like speeds.

Many of those left with copper networks should see better experience thanks to VDSL and other fast copper technologies.

We will be in a new communications era.

New rules

Last year the National government introduced the Telecommunications Amendment Bill. It aims to set out the rules for fixed line telecommunications in the fibre era.

Most insiders expect the Bill to have its third and final reading between now and Christmas. After then it will be law.

This week the government tabled a supplementary order paper for the Bill. Among other things it sets a new cap for the wholesale price of a fibre connection.

The government has decided that a 100/20 mbps connection will be the benchmark. It calls this the anchor service. Some in the industry have argued that by 2022, 100/20 mbps will be bordering on obsolete. Never mind, the key point is that the price cap will $46.

Telecommunications Bill brings certainty

This is important as it gives everyone in the industry something to work with as they plan strategies for the coming era.

The figure means wholesale broadband companies make a profit. They have enough incentive to expand fibre networks beyond the reach of 87 percent of the population. No doubt this will happen over time.

Likewise retail service providers know what they need to charge consumers to make their broadband services pay. Everyone in the industry likes certainty.

Elsewhere the Bill will make telecommunications regulations more like those in other utilities. It will remove unnecessary rules that are a hang-over from the copper era.

Watching service quality

The Bill also aims to get the Commerce Commission to take more notice of retail service quality. The Commerce Commission will also get to check that emergency services are available even in the event of a power failure, which would knock out fibre services.

The Commerce Commission will be allowed to conduct inquiries into any matter relating to the industry or for the long-term benefit of consumers.

Telecommunications Minister Kris Faafoi says the new regulated price: “…represents a fairer deal for everyone: a good price for New Zealand broadband consumers and a reasonable price for Chorus”.

Chorus CEO Kate McKenzie says the supplementary order paper provides some clarification. She says: “We welcome this step towards a new regulatory framework for New Zealand’s key communications infrastructure. We look forward to the passage of the bill and to starting work on implementation”.

One thing that hasn’t been said in public, but is discussed by the industry in private is that the certainty brought by the Bill when it becomes law should calm things down between the various players.

The last year or so has seen retail and wholesale companies jockey for position ahead of the Bill. Relations between players have been tense. Most of the time this has been behind the scenes, but every so often something emerges in a speech or a media interview.

Once the Bill becomes an Act, everyone can get back to the more important business of finding innovative ways to make money from telecommunications services. That means giving customers what they want and seeking out new things that we are going to want in future.

Clare Curran, Labour communications spokesperson
Communications Minister Clare Curran moved fast to establish the CTO position.

Politicians are rarely good with technology. Nothing illustrates this better than the 2011 parliamentary debate over the Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Act.

A lot of nonsense was spoken at the time. The NBR described the debate as loopy. That was kind. It was obvious the MPs had no idea what they were talking about.

The otherwise obscure New Plymouth MP Jonathan Young took the madness to a higher level. He made headlines speaking in an empty parliament chamber saying:

“…The computer system called Skynet that ruled the world. It’s like the internet today.”

Most of us had no idea what Skynet is. Yet we all knew Young was out of touch with the real world when he spoke.

Young had his 15 minutes of fame as he was mocked for failing to understand the internet.

Politicians don’t get IT

To be fair to Young, he isn’t the only politician who doesn’t understand technology. Few do. Many say embarrassing things. Some say foolish or harmful things.

Wiser heads know to say nothing or very little. It’s better to keep your mouth shut and have people think you may be ignorant than to open it and confirm their fears.

It seems the higher you get in the pecking order, the less a politician knows. Technology know-how has never been a path to high office. It may be an obstacle.

At best politicians mouth empty platitudes about technology. They often acknowledge it is often a good thing without saying anything specific. It’s like motherhood and apple pie.

Praise be

You will hear our politicians sing the praises of entrepreneurs. While they are positive about technology investment, that’s because they are in favour of any investment.

And they know technology investment sounds good to voters.

Our politicians might, if pushed, be able to talk about the importance of teaching children about science and technology. Yet, for the most part, that’s about as far as things go.

Not only do politicians not understand specifics about science and technology, they often fail to grasp the importance of underlying ideas and concepts.

Ask them about, say, the value of scientific peer review, the nature of scientific enquiry or the difference between proprietary or open source software and most of the time you’ll get blank looks.

Advice for policymakers

So it makes sense to have someone who can move in their circles to advise policymakers. Hat’s off to Communications Minister Clare Curran for moving fast to establish the role. It may have been in the manifesto for both parties by the time of the election, but Curran pushed this for a while and has wasted no time making it happen.

Curran says the chief technology officer will be accountable to the prime minister and to herself. She says the person will provide independent expert advice to ministers and senior leaders on digital issues.

She says:

“The chief technology officer will be responsible for preparing and overseeing a national digital architecture, or roadmap, for the next five to ten years”.

The job has to go to someone capable of speaking to the cabinet and committee members in a language they can understand without being condescending.

New Zealand already has many public servants and others operating at the highest levels who can advise policymakers on these matters. They often do. Much of the time their advice is first class.

Yet advisors tend to operate in silos, often with a narrow sectorial focus. At times their advice can conflict with their peers operating in other fields.

Some of the key advice going to politicians comes from well-funded lobby groups, not independent experts.

The science advisers who go into bat for the agriculture sector might have a different view of, say, wheat or sugar to those advisers working in public health.

Technology advice in the eye of the beholder

Similar reasoning applies to technology. Take public cloud computing. An advisor focused on productivity and reducing cost might be all for government storing sensitive data overseas on an Amazon server. An advisor looking after personal security and privacy might offer an entirely different opinion.

Depending on where you sit, the idea of, say, data sovereignty might be a useful way to keep people safe or it could be a brake on innovation. Someone needs to unpick these issues for our leaders.

There are big strategic decisions where different government departments and competing interests want to pull in different directions. Take the question of how government should engage with organisations like Google or Facebook? You’ll get diametric views depending on who you talk to.

Big picture view

A chief technology officer may not be the best person to make day-to-day decisions on such matters, but they can set the ground rules and explain the issues to policymakers.

Someone needs to tell ministers it can be a bad idea in general, say, for their departments to communicate with citizens by Facebook.

This kind of decision should not be left to gut-feel reckons. Too many important decisions of this nature are being made by people who don’t necessarily grasp all the basics.

Think back once more to 2011 and the Copyright Amendment Act. At the time paid online services for copyrighted material were emerging as alternatives to piracy. It was clear then that these emerging services at least had the potential to neuter the threat of piracy.

Either no-one told our leaders, or, more likely, no-one who they would listen to was prepared to tell them. Having someone in the Beehive who could talk through the issues would be a good start.

Likewise, someone needs to talk to our leaders about the implications of increased automation, artificial intelligence and so on for employment. Then there’s blockchain and the internet of things or the government investment in fixed-line broadband potentially being undermined by wireless network operators. We could go on listing important technology areas that may need legislative attention.

Chief technology officer no panacea

Having a chief technology officer is not a panacea. It is no good if someone claims the crown, then does little with it. The person chosen needs to be active. At the same time, we really don’t need someone who comes to the role with a predetermined agenda. It’s not a job for someone who is partisan.

And that’s a big danger. Even the fairest-minded expert can be open to capture by special interest groups. Big technology companies are already able to throw millions of dollars into wooing, cajoling and persuading politicians, putting one person in charge of the category could make their task so much easier.

We don’t want a chief technology officer who kow-tows to global technology giants. Yet at the same time, we do not want one who is openly and unreasonably hostile towards them or some of them. We need a sceptic, not a cynic.

If there is an over-arching objective for a national chief technology officer, it would be to insert more science, engineering or technical thinking into government. There is precious little.

Few politicians or senior public servants have any science education beyond school and many dropped the subject long before leaving high school. While there’s nothing wrong with not having a technology background, there is clearly too little knowledge among our present leaders. It might help if the better funded political parties also hired technology advisors to help them frame policy.

Communications skills

The other danger is that the appointee is brilliant with a full grasp of the complexities, but is unable to articulate key ideas in a simple enough fashion for ordinary mortals to understand. Remember, our political leaders have, a best a below average grasp of technology, even if they are brilliant lawyers or business leaders.

The chief technology officer will also need to be able to talk in the language that ordinary citizens can understand. At least part of their job will be to explain to the rest of us what is going on with policy. It’s a big job. It needs a special person.

Beehive Wellington Government

Act Party leader David Seymour wants the New Zealand government to consider open source software.

In Act calls on government to support open source software at the NBR, he says the government needs to take a new approach when buying software procurement.

It can save the taxpayer large sums of money.

Seymour tells the NBR:

“A substantial number of civil servants could generate the same output using open source software and open document formats, instead of proprietary software like Microsoft Office.”

Act isn’t the only political party to call for government to consider using more open source software. It is also Green Party policy.

The key word is consider.

While there’s an argument for asking public servants use open source apps in place of Microsoft Office, that’s only part of the story.

Mandating open source

Mandating open source can be a straight-jacket. There are times when it is the right tool for a job, there are times when it is not. Far better to let decision makers nearer the coal face choose what people need. Pragmatism should trump dogma.

It’s not just Microsoft Office. There are government agencies using Google Documents. While licences are cheaper, the software isn’t free and, if anything, the data is more locked away than with Office.

If anything, rules should forbidding government departments buying software from companies not paying their fair share of tax.

Sure, many argue that Google isn’t breaking any laws, but nor would a government be breaking any laws if it chose to spend taxpayer funds with companies that are good citizens.

It’s one thing to insist public servants write memos using open source apps, but inflexible, expensive software isn’t restricted to desktop productivity apps.

Seymour thinks the government can save as much as $52 million “every four or five years” from dropping office. It’s likely at least that much money will also be tied up in proprietary databases.

Proprietary databases

Some proprietary databases are notoriously difficult to replace. The lock customers into long, expensive support contracts. At times some database licences resemble ransomware.

Writing at the New Zealand Open Source Society website Dave Lane has another perspective:

“While the NZOSS is gratified to see Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) being advocated by the Act Party (and the Greens have similarly advocated it for at least the past decade) we think that FOSS sells itself if the playing field is level. At present it is not.”

Good point. Formally mandating open standards for government apps would help level the playing field.

Let’s also level the software playing field in a wider sense. It’s not just open source versus proprietary, we also need to level the playing field for New Zealand tech companies allowing them to win more government contracts.

Keeping local technology firms out of such contracts would be unthinkable in most other countries.