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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.

Telecommunications Bill resets UFB price cap

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.

5G spectrum jockeying begins

Network makers promise next-generation mobile phones will download data faster than fibre.

The original goal for 5G cellular was 10 Gbps downloads. Now engineers say 20 Gbps.

Without getting deep into electromagnetic physics and radio engineering, this was an ambitious goal. Ambitious, but as the evidence so far shows, realistic.

Yet there are challenges.

Carriers can’t push wireless data through the air at 20 Gbps using the existing mobile radio spectrum.

More 5G spectrum please

Which means carriers need to find new spectrum to deliver the promised 5G performance.

Or, to be more accurate, governments need to reorganise spectrum allocations. They get to decide who can use which parts of the spectrum.

Spectrum is an important resource. It isn’t only used by mobile phone companies. So governments must weigh up the needs of mobile phone companies against other spectrum users.

In part it does this is by putting a price on spectrum. Chunks of ratio frequencies are sold to the highest bidder. Usually, but not always, this involves an auction.

New Zealand’s Radio Spectrum Management, part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, is already working on plans to put frequencies aside for 5G cellular.

Meanwhile, the Commerce Commission is working on regulatory aspects of the move to 5G.

Telecommunications Commissioner Dr Stephen Gale says:

“We believe the power to regulate remains an important competition safeguard, especially with 5G networks and potential new entrants on the horizon”.

Money go round

In the past government spectrum auctions work by dividing available frequencies into blocks. Bigger blocks give carriers more bandwidth to play with. In simple terms more bandwidth can mean faster data speeds.

Spectrum auctions can make a lot of money for governments. Past auctions have poured gold into the public sector. The recent UK 5G spectrum raised £1.3 billion, around NZ$2.5 billion.

It may look like a windfall. Governments often treat the money that way. But it is more about moving money from one place to another. When telcos pay a lot for spectrum the cost is passed onto customers.

5G spectrum risks

If they overpay, they may spend money that would otherwise be used to build towers and extend the network’s reach. Overpaying often means a network roll-out is slower.

Given the value of cellular communications to the wider economy, squeezing out the maximum amount of cash in a spectrum auction can be counterproductive in the long term.

New Zealand’s last spectrum auction took a more sensible approach.

The government realised the economy could be better served in the long term by a good mobile network than by a windfall. So carriers were offered a fixed price well below what it might have made in a competitive auction.

Not everything sold so one remaining block of spectrum was then auctioned off.

In the past different cellular services have run in different frequency bands.

This can still happen. Yet one of the features of 5G is that carriers are able to mash together greater amounts of bandwidth from different bands. Or to use an engineer’s language: they can aggregate spectrum.

While this already happens a little with 4G, Spectrum aggregation is central to 5G. How that works in practice will be interesting. It will be a challenge for phone makers.

Higher frequency

Most people in the telecoms business expect 5G to use higher frequencies than today’s mobile phones. Depending on who you talk to, the options go all the way up to 95GHz.

This brings us to another challenge carriers face. Radio waves have different properties in different bands.

Low frequencies are useful for communicating with submarines or in mines. Shortwave radio is good for broadcasting over long distances. And so on.

Dealing with this is an engineering problem. There are also political challenges. In some cases existing spectrum users may have to give up their rights or move services to different frequencies. It can be disruptive.

Compared with some other countries, New Zealand is well placed to deal with these challenges.

UHF – ultra-high frequency

Almost all of today’s mobile telephone traffic takes place in what is known as the ultra high-frequency band or UHF. This is the spectrum from 300 MHz to 3GHz.

Some of the spectrum that will be used for 5G is in the next band up: super high frequency or SHF. That runs from 3 to 30 GHz.

UHF and SHF frequencies are microwaves. Which means the band is used by microwave ovens. It’s also used by Wi-Fi and other home wireless devices, satellite communications, radar and radio astronomy.

As you move into higher spectrum bands radio signals run into a different set of physical problems. At 5GHz and above signals get absorbed by solid objects.

The signals don’t propagate so well. So antennae cover shorter distances. In other words, you need to build more towers to give carpet coverage.

Bluetooth

Bluetooth devices operate in part of this frequency band.

The devices have low signal power levels compared with cellular phones. They are only designed to work over a short distance.

Even so, you a taste of what to expect from a 5G cell site operating at this frequency by thinking about Bluetooth’s limitations around your house. The signals may pass through wooden walls, masonry can block them. So can metal frames.

When outdoors, microwave signals don’t tend to pass through mountains or hills. In effect, they only work in line-of-sight. A cell site operating at higher microwave frequencies that works for a customer in winter might struggle in summer when there are leaves on the trees.

Rain fade

Go beyond 30GHz and radio signals are affected by water molecules. That means rain — satellite TV users will already know about rain fade. From about 60GHz oxygen molecules get in the way.

Some engineers overseas want to use frequencies as high as 95 GHz for their 5G networks. There’s a military weapon that works at this frequency.

This tells you something about the risks, although the power used for cellular phones would be many times lower than any weapon.

Payoff

To keep things simple, let’s leave it at this: higher frequency radio waves are harder to use. On the other hand, they offer much more bandwidth and that means higher potential data speeds.

As a rough rule of thumb, higher frequencies mean faster data, but over shorter distances. Typically higher frequency sites will be in densely populated areas and will be only a few dozen metres apart.

When cell sites are a few dozen metres apart, you need a lot of them. They don’t need to be big. You could put them on existing telephone or power poles.

In New Zealand

For now, talk of higher frequencies and the problems using them is largely academic. Most of the planned 5G action here in New Zealand is in or around frequency bands already used by mobile phones.

When Spark managing director Simon Moutter outlined his companies plans he called for more spectrum below 1 GHz.

He says it will be needed to provide 5G services in rural areas. This will almost certainly mean the 600 MHz band, which is already in the government’s sights. Signals in this frequency band can travel over long distances.

Moutter also identified the “two most likely spectrum bands”. Spark wants the mid-frequency C-band and high-frequency mmWave band to be ready as soon as possible so it can put its 5G network in place in time for the 2020-21 America’s Cup in Auckland.

This shouldn’t be difficult in principle.

Is there enough for 5G spectrum?

There should be enough usable spectrum in the 600 MHz band and the C-band to give New Zealand’s three big mobile carriers all they need to build viable 5G networks.

Yet they are not the only possible bidders for 5G spectrum. Wisps — wireless internet service providers — do a fine job filling in the gaps in regional broadband coverage.

Wisps could also make good use of more spectrum. And the spectrum of most use to them happens to be the spectrum the carriers are keenest to buy.

Small regional service providers lack the financial clout of the mobile carriers, but they can argue the service they offer is as deserving. Maybe more, after all, wisps service New Zealand’s exporters.

Elsewhere, Callplus founder Malcolm Dick’s Blue Reach project is likely to show interest in 5G spectrum. Blue Reach plans what it calls a 5G wholesale service. Presumably, the wisps would be among Blue Reach’s customers.

Economic logic says a competitive auction is a way of ensuring spectrum goes to the bidder who stands to gain the most. This, the argument goes, means the most economically efficient use is made of each block of spectrum.

In practice, some bidders sit on unused spectrum. The last NZ auction made that unlikely as it included a use-it-or-lose-it clause.

Some less well-heeled organisations find it hard to buy the spectrum they need. How these issues will be addressed will become clearer when the auction terms are formally announced.

Closing New Zealand’s rural digital divide

Clare Curran says: “We have to do more than better connectivity”. The minister for broadcasting, communications and digital media was speaking about the digital divide at last month’s Tuanz Rural Connectivity Symposium in Wellington.

Curran names ‘closing the digital divide by 2020‘ as one of her two big goals. The other is for technology to be the second biggest contributor to GDP by 2025.

Both are fine goals. Neither will be easy.

Rural digital divide

There are at least two types of digital divide. The first is geographic. To use Curran’s words, that issue is one of better connectivity. People in rural areas don’t have the same easy access to communications networks as people who live in towns.

Blame economics. The cost of getting fibre to a city dweller is lower than the cost of connecting someone living in a remote area.

Both types of customer pay the same price for a connection if they are on the regulated UFB fibre network. This means people living in easy-to-connect areas subsidise those elsewhere. Almost no-one complains about this subsidy. It’s a step towards bridging the rural digital divide.

And anyway, a flat rate simplifies billing for service providers. Billing is expensive, so simple bills help keep costs down.

Clare Curran at Tuanz rural connectivity symposium - digital divide

Drawing the dividing line

By the time the UFB project completes, 87 percent of the population will be able to connect to fibre. while the other 13 percent are more at risk of being the wrong side of the digital divide, they won’t all have second rate connections.

While the 87 percent cut-off point seems arbitrary, it is a reasonable place to draw a line. At least for now. Beyond that number each extra fibre connection gets more expensive to build.

Theory says that some point fibre isn’t economic. It’s not clear where that point is. When our ancestors built the copper phone network they managed to cover 99 percent of the population. We weren’t richer in those days, if anything the job was harder. So the choice about where to draw the line is as much about social priorities and politics as economics.

Beyond 87 percent

One day we may stretch the network further than 87 percent. There are already plans for still more fibre. Getting to 90 percent coverage wouldn’t be economic unreasonable. Getting to 100 percent would be.

As things stand there are more cost-effective ways of reaching the most remote 13 percent. Most involve wireless. That’s the approach favoured by the government subsidised Rural Broadband Initiative.

The problem is that wireless technologies are not as good as fibre. They offer slower speeds, are contested and they not as reliable. They are, in theory at least, cheaper. It costs less to beam radio waves across paddocks than to build fibre lines over them.

Contested

Contested means that users on a wireless network share bandwidth. If a lot of people are online at the same time everyone’s speed can drop. In contrast UFB fibre is uncontested. Contracts between fibre companies and the government guarantee performance.

Another problem with wireless is there is less network capacity. To get around this service providers impose data caps on users. Most fibre connections have uncapped plans. Wireless users get a set amount of data each month.

Although some fixed wireless data plans are generous, life is not carefree when you have to limit, say, your television viewing towards the end of the month to be sure of having enough data left for other uses.

Rugby World Cup

These issues could come to the fore during next year’s Rugby World Cup. Spark and TVNZ won the broadcast rights. Spark intends to stream games, the technology is like Netflix. We love the game nationwide, but Rugby’s heartland is rural New Zealand. Will fixed wireless networks cope when every connection on a tower is streaming high-definition television? Spark doesn’t say so in public, but some insiders have voiced fears about how this might go.

Wireless plans often cost as much as fibre plans. They offer less. Not a lot less. Yet on a like-for like basis they are more expensive than fibre plans. The extra cost may be an annoyance, but it doesn’t put a customer on the wrong side of the digital divide.

There’s a handy proof for this. Spark offers fixed wireless to customers everywhere on its network: rural and urban. Thousands of city dwellers have chosen fixed wireless.

If fixed wireless was dreadful you’d hear more about it. There would be a lot of angry people. Sure, there are some unhappy fixed wireless broadband customers. Yet citizens aren’t marching on Spark’s headquarters with pitchforks and burning torches. For many people it’s not bad.

Fixed wireless broadband may be inferior to fibre, but people who have it are on the right side of the digital divide.

Not there yet on rural digital divide

It isn’t quite that simple. There’s a limit to the number of connections a wireless tower can accommodate. This means its possible there are some rural users who can’t get a connection because their local tower is full. Carriers can add capacity, but it may not happen immediately. A handful of people may miss out.

A bigger issue is that fixed wireless broadband doesn’t reach all the last 13 percent of the population. Not yet. The exact number is hard to gauge. At the Rural Connectivity Symposium, someone said there could be as many as 100,000 homes still out of reach of RBI. That’s about 5 percent of total connections. I’m afraid I didn’t make a note of who said this.

Moving goal posts

There’s another aspect to this. A decade ago when the Rural Broadband Initiative was being set up, the aim was 5Mbps. That’s enough for web surfing, email and movie downloads. Today’s acceptable broadband threshold is the 30 to 40Mbps needed to stream HD video. RBI towers can and do deliver these speeds. Wireless internet services providers do a terrific job getting connectivity to remote places.

Today’s rural network performance is way past the 2009 test of acceptable broadband. Also, thanks to the wisps, today’s broadband network reaches further into valleys and outlying areas than the 2009 RBI architects expected.

Yet the question mark hanging over the Rugby World Cup tells us there is still a rural-urban divide. Today the bar isn’t 5Mbps or even 40Mbps. It’s “is there enough broadband for people in rural New Zealand to enjoy the Rugby World Cup on an HD screen?”

And that’s the rub. The urban-rural digital divide is a moving target. Some rural New Zealanders will always feel they have second-rate broadband right up until the fibre network reaches them. Whether that’s reasonable or economic is a political matter, not one for the industry. Are we as a country willing to spend what it takes to get fibre as far as we managed to spread those copper lines?

A New Zealand chief technology officer

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

People spoke a lot of nonsense 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 people mocked him 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. Communications Minister Clare Curran mode 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 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 language they can understand without 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 a 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.