“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.
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.
After a slow start New Zealand’s Rural Broadband Initiative has hit its stride.
RBI is a government-subsidised scheme to give farmers and people living in rural areas a broadband network.
Communications minister Amy Adams says the first stage is now complete with 154 new cellular towers now built. The towers serve 3G and 4G fixed wireless broadband as well as conventional mobile phone services.
She says 300,000 rural homes and businesses can use RBI wireless services.
Towers of power
The towers also increase mobile coverage in rural New Zealand. Before the RBI began mobile services reach a little over one-third of New Zealand’s geographical area. Today mobile services cover half the area.
In addition to the 154 new cellular towers, Vodafone will have finished upgrading a further 387 existing towers by this time next year.
Vodafone won the original contract to build new mobile towers. Chorus, which was then still part of Telecom NZ, won the contract to connect fibre to the towers.
Despite building the towers, the RBI contracts insisted Vodafone allowed other carriers to install their equipment. This proved a smart move.
3G RBI not up to much
Early Vodafone RBI services using 3G technology were slow, expensive and had low data caps. This meant there was a pitiful take-up. One year ago the total number of customers signed for Vodafone’s RBI was officially around 8,000, although insiders insisted the number of active was lower.
In May 2015 Labour communications spokesperson Clare Curran called for an inquiry into the low take-up numbers. Tuanz CEO Craig Young said his organisation was disappointed with the low uptake of RBI services.
At the time Vodafone RBI customers paid $95 a month for 30 GB of data and free calling. The 3G broadband speeds could be lower than 1 Mbps and were rarely faster than 5 Mbps.
Things picked up soon after. A few months after the complaints, Spark entered the market with a competitive offer. Spark’s rural wireless broadband was 4G from day one, offered a higher data cap and had user-installed hardware making it easier to get started. Vodafone responded in kind and numbers picked up.
Today many rural users can get fibre-like speeds for little more than the price paid by urban broadband customers.
Spark and Vodafone offer similar packages where customers get 80 GB of data and local calling for $106 a month, or an 80 GB naked broadband plan for $96 a month. RBI users with a 4G connection could see speeds go as high as 80 Mbps, although typical peak speeds are more often in the 30 to 40 Mbps range.
Adams says; “This agreement has been very successful, with approximately four out of every five new cell towers hosting a mix of competing operators.”
RBI doesn’t stop with the 154 new and 387 upgraded towers. The now completed first phase of RBI was subsidised with $300 million of government funds — some of this from a tax imposed on telecommunications companies.
In the 2015 budget the New Zealand government earmarked a further $100 million to extend the RBI’s reach. There’s a further $50m to fill in mobile network black spots. The government says this will improve safety on highways and better serve remote tourism locations.
Adams set down ambitious goals for rural broadband, in May she issued a statement saying: “By 2025, I want to see 99 percent of New Zealanders able to access broadband capable of 50 Mbps, and the remaining one per cent in the hardest to reach locations able to access broadband of 10 Mbps.”
A major Herald investigation has found the 20 multinational companies most aggressive in shifting profits out of New Zealand overall paid virtually no income tax, despite recording nearly $10 billion in annual sales to Kiwi consumers.
The analysis of financial information of more than 100 multinational corporations and their New Zealand subsidiaries showed that, had the New Zealand branches of these 20 firms reported profits at the same healthy rate as their parents, their combined income tax bill would have been nearly $490 million.
Big companies not paying tax may be legal, it isn’t moral. They shuffle profits to countries with low taxes so they can avoid paying for the taxpayer-funded infrastructure and social spending that made them rich in the first place.
Two tax avoiding tech giants Facebook and Google grew wealthy on the back of the internet.
It was originally paid for by taxpayers in countries like the USA and the UK. The internet wouldn’t exist without taxpayers, nor would Google or Facebook.
Apple grew into one of the world’s largest businesses on the back of the iPhone.
Yet for much of its history, Apple mainly sold computers. A large number of those sales were to schools. It depended on government funded education to keep it afloat during the lean years.
Without taxes, there would be no Facebook, Google or Apple.
Large countries like the USA, UK and even medium-size ones like Australia have moved to close the loopholes allowing multinationals to avoid taxes. New Zealand has less room for manoeuvre.
In the long-term our best chance of dealing with the problem is by taking part in international initiatives.
In the meantime, there is something we can do. We could insist government purchasers only buy from the companies who pay their fair share of tax.
Sure, fair share is a debatable and nebulous term. The less than one percent paid by some companies on Nippert’s list is not fair.
Not buying from tax avoiders would mean no more government purchased iPhones, no government Google Apps accounts, no government advertisements on Facebook.
At least not until they pay up.
Not taking this approach amounts to rewarding bad behaviour.
If this was Australia, the USA or the UK, government would be under pressure to buy from local suppliers. Listen to what candidates in the US presidential primaries say on the subject.
It’s a vote winner. It should be here.
Yet at times it feels as if the political pressure in New Zealand is in the opposite direction.
This isn’t about protectionism. After all, we’re a free trade economy. Yet it often feels as if government is biased against local tech companies.
We have world class tech companies. Spark Digital is least as good as its overseas owned competition. So is Revera. So are the other top tier local IT companies.
They don’t need favouritism. Give them a fair crack at contracts and you’ll find you get better service from professionals well acquainted with local conditions. You’ll create more, high-quality jobs and keep more local talent at home.
Spark, Vodafone and Chorus will pay almost NZ$44 million towards this year’s $50 million Telecommunications Development Levy.
The Telecommunications Development Levy is an extra tax paid by telecommunications companies. Each company pays a little over one percent of its revenue to subsidise rural broadband and finance other worthy but uncommercial services.
Spark is the biggest contributor. It pays almost $20 million. Vodafone pays almost $14 million and Chorus’ share is around $11 million.
The next two telecommunications companies, 2degrees and CallPlus pay around $3 million and $1.2 million. There are 13 other companies paying the tax. Between them, they pay about $2 million.
Companies have to earn at least $10 million from “telecommunications services” before paying anything.
Government set the Telecommunications Development Levyfund at NZ$50 million. Each of the contributing companies pays a proportion of the total depending on its share of all “qualifying revenue”.
Some of the money raised, NZ$2.6 million this year, pays for the Telecommunications Relay Service. This helps people with hearing problems use telephones.
The government sets a further sum aside for 111 emergency services. It spends the rest of the money on rural broadband.
A tax by any other name
Note how government charges the Telecommunications Development Levy on revenue, not profit.
That would be difficult because as a whole New Zealand’s telecommunications industry barely scrapes a profit.
Last year the five companies paying the lion’s share of the levy made a collective loss. This year the numbers are better, but not much.
Telecommunications is not a high-margin business and requires huge capital investment in infrastructure. Not least in paying the government to use the radio spectrum — which could be regarded as another form of taxation.
In practice companies pass the extra taxes on to telecommunications customers.
There’s an irony here. While telecommunications companies pay extra tax, the companies, one might argue benefit the most from a nationwide broadband network, barely pay any tax.
Google and Facebook earn a king’s ransom selling ads to New Zealanders. Because they claim these sales happen elsewhere in the world the revenue they collect is effectively tax-free.
They wouldn’t be able to earn this tax-free income if it wasn’t for the likes of Spark, Vodafone, Chorus, 2degrees or CallPlus providing the networks. They get a free ride.