Categories
telecommunications

NZ chief science advisor 5G site not up to the job

Good on the Professor Juliet Gerrard, the Prime Minister’s chief science advisor, for setting up a web site to address 5G fears.

It counters much of the disinformation in circulation.

Sadly the presentation is awful. It is so poor that the message doesn’t stand much chance of reaching ordinary folk.

Some of the campaigns and disinformation sites attempting to undermine the science are so much slicker.

Not engaging

Take a look at the home page. Web sites don’t get much less engaging.

chief science advisor 5G site
The Prime Minister’s chief science advisor 5G site

It has large blocks of text across a very wide measure. That makes it hard to read. While the text is broken up into blocks lower down the front page, there is a daunting slab of text to get through at the top.

The second paragraph is over 100 words long. You need a Year 12 reading age to comprehend the text. That’s way too high, beyond the majority of readers. Even people are able to read such dense material, tend not to bother.

In other words it reads more like academic or government writing than, say, newspaper or magazine copy.

When official equals boring, unreadable

Now there is a case for this. It is, after all, an official government science response. Yet, it is up against disinformation campaigns that know exactly how to reach the target audience.

It’s good that the designer1 uses links in another colour. This breaks up the blocks giving the reader’s eye signposts as they wade through the dreary text.

Even the text chosen here is wrong. It should be larger, although I’m impressed that it uses a bold typeface, that helps with accessibility for readers with poor eyesight.

What we have here is important. The site contains the information people need. In places the language is clear enough. I like this part:

“The currently available scientific evidence makes it extremely unlikely that there will be any adverse effects on human or environmental health.”

For a scientist it is reasonably tight. Although the journalist in me says this could also be clearer:

“Scientists think it is unlikely 5G will harm you or the environment”.

Commercial alternative

Compare the chief science advisor’s page with this page from Vodafone group out of the UK.

Vodafone UK 5G safety page
Vodafone 5G safety page from UK

It’s unambiguous, straight to the point and easy to read. Even though it gets technical and deep in places, it still does a better job of explaining the issues.

Of course, you might be thinking that it is one thing for a chief science advisor to tell the 5G safety story and another thing entirely for folk that are flogging the technology to tell the story. You’d be right.

Yet the New Zealand government could have made an important piece of public information more engaging. Look at Vodafone’s 5G infographic below. It packs a lot of complex information into a simple, easy to understand image.

The funny thing is, New Zealand’s often doesn’t have this problem with other public information campaigns when it hires an advertising agency to get the message across. Maybe that’s what’s needed here.

Vodafone UK 5G safety page
Vodafone’s 5G infographic makes an otherwise hard to explain concept easy to understand.

  1. I’m assuming it was designed and not just templated together, but I could be wrong about that. ↩︎
Categories
telecommunications

Extending New Zealand’s fibre network

Last week engineers completed the first UFB stage. The so-called UFB1 fibre network reaches three quarters of the country.

UFB2 will stretch that to around 87 percent. We can take fibre further, but that needs taxpayer money. A lot of it.

When New Zealand built its copper telephone network, government saw it as a nation-building exercise. Copper phone wires reached almost everywhere.

The number you often see quoted is that it reached 99 percent of the country. It could have been one or two percent less. That’s not the point.

Copper went everywhere

What’s important is that it felt as if copper reached every part of New Zealand. Perception is important.

There’s no technical reason the fibre network couldn’t do the same. The arguments against running fibre everywhere are economic. A nationwide fibre network is expensive.

Yes, it was expensive laying copper to outlying settlements and buildings. We did that at a time when there was less money around.

State-owned monopoly

We also did it at a time the telecommunications network was a government owned monopoly.

The copper network was built as a public service, not a profit making business. Laying copper to the nation’s furthest reaches and maintaining the network created good-paying jobs for workers in regional New Zealand. That would have been a consideration. We rarely hear that argument today.

In a sense it was still about getting the maximum return on the investment, but not in the way modern companies measure investments and returns. There was a social component.

How far can we go with fibre?

We’re not about to go back to a state-owned telecommunications monopoly1. But there is still a social component to network building. So how far can we go given today’s conditions?

The easy answer is somewhere between the 87 percent already earmarked and the 99 percent the copper network achieved. It won’t be 99 percent, it will be more than 87 percent.

If pushed I’d say a little over 90 percent in the next five years with further add-ons later. But that depends on many moving parts. It also depends on technology not changing, which experience says is a mug’s bet.

Brutal economics

Many forces drive network extension decision making. The most brutal economic fact is that the further you go, the more it costs to add each extra address to the network.

By the time you get to the last few percent the cost is way higher than can be justified by an investor looking for a rational economic return. At least as things stand today.

A nation building government could find the money.

The good news is that fibre uptake is much higher than anticipated at the start of the UFB project. It’s already close to 60 percent and will climb well beyond that number.

This means investing money connecting what were once marginal addresses is now more likely to pay off.

There will be places not included in the 87 percent covered by UFB1 and UFB2 where connection makes sound economic sense.

Politics of fibre

Another force pushing the number higher is political. People in rural areas see people in towns getting Netflix and high quality streaming Rugby pictures. Their kids want to play Xbox games.

People want fibre and may pressure politicians to deliver. Never underestimate rural New Zealand’s ability to lobby government.

By now the people connected to fixed wireless broadband on the RBI network know they have second rate broadband. It will take a long time for their service to improve, if ever. There are stories of capacity problems.

Not everyone who wants a wireless connection can get one. It is unlikely rural fixed wireless will ever match fibre. That’s more pressure.

One way or another government needs to subsidise further network extension. So the answer to the how far will the network goes question is a matter of the willingness of governments and taxpayers to put people in rural New Zealand on an equal digital footing.

Before you ask how far will fibre go, ask yourself how much you are willing to pay?


  1. Discuss this by all means. Even if you think it is desirable, it’s unlikely. ↩︎
Categories
telecommunications

If tech giants paid NZ’s Telecommunications Development Levy

In the UK, the Labour Party plans to nationalise part of the telecommunications network if it wins this year’s election.

To cover costs, a Labour government will tax multinational tech giants including Google and Facebook.

Let’s put aside the idea of nationalisation1. Instead, let us focus on the idea of making tech giants contribute towards the cost of telecommunications networks.

Not ridiculous

The idea isn’t ridiculous. Google and Facebook made their fortunes on the back of telecom networks. In effect they had a free ride.

People who invested in building Spark, Vodafone, Chorus and the rest of New Zealand’s telecommunications networks have, up to a point, subsidised the tech giants.

A decade ago there was talk in telecom circles about recapturing some of the value taken by over-the-top companies.

That battle was lost before it started.

It could be impractical and difficult for a small nation like New Zealand to force tech giants to pay all the costs of our telecommunication network.

That would remove price signals. These are important. They help the industry squeeze value from the assets. They tell planners where to invest.

Jangling the gold

There is one area where we can hold Facebook, Google and maybe other tech giants upside down and jangle the coins out of their pockets.

We could get them to contribute to our Telecommunications Development Levy.

This is the money collected by the government to help subsidise rural telecommunications. It also pays for things like the services that help blind and deaf people use phones.

At the moment the TDL is $50 million a year. It’s called a levy, but it’s really a tax on telecommunications companies. They each pay a share roughly based on how much they earn from sales.

As things stand today, Spark, Vodafone and Chorus pay the lion’s share.

How it might work

Suppose, for one minute, we decide to treat income the digital giants earn from New Zealand on the same basis as local telco revenue.

We’ll forget the smaller firms for now and focus on only two tech giants: Google and Facebook.

It’s hard to know exactly how much these companies make in New Zealand. The Commerce Commission would be have a job extracting this data, but it is doable.

This NZ Herald story estimates Google made around $600 million here in 2017. The number for Facebook is hard to estimate. For the sake of argument, let’s say it is much the same.

The total qualified revenue for New Zealand’s telcos is $4.1 billion. If we add in the tech giant revenue that gives us $5.3 billion.

In round numbers that puts Google and Facebook’s share at 20 percent of the total.

This means we could reasonably ask the two giants to stump up $10 million towards the TDL.

If we add in the other large companies who earn revenue on the back of New Zealand having a decent digital network that could take the total contribution from over the top money earners up to around a third of the TDL total.

Fair dealings?

It would be hard for anyone to argue such an approach is unfair. The amounts are, in comparison, tiny. A $10 million charge on $1.2 billion is less than one-tenth of one percent. It wouldn’t even feature as a budget line item.

Tech giants make huge margins on their revenues. The charge need not have any effect on prices.

In comparison the profit margins for New Zealand’s telecommunications companies are slender. Putting $15 million or so2 back into their hands wouldn’t make a huge difference. It would ease their burden.

So there you have it. The company’s that benefit most from investment in telecommunications can return a tiny trickle from their rivers of gold so that more New Zealanders can access their products and services. Is that so unreasonable?


  1. Maybe until another time. Maybe not. ↩︎
  2. This presumes an expanded programme where more than just two tech giants contribute ↩︎
Categories
telecommunications

Digital divide targeted in government inclusion blueprint

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.

Categories
telecommunications

Huawei ban: Arguments for and against

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.