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Southern Cross Cable

How does New Zealand get another submarine cable project off the ground in the wake of Pacific Fibre’s fund-raising failure?

Ryan Ashton posed the question at a technology industry networking event last night. Ashton wants to trigger a debate and people at the event joined in. At least one had worked for Pacific Fibre.

Ashton’s idea for a new cable amounts to crowd-funding. He says the three or four hundred million dollars required could be spread over, say, a million New Zealanders. The same logic could be used to argue for government funding.

An informal after work event held in a bar isn’t the best place for this discussion, yet this is a necessary debate. There are many issues to consider.

First we have to decide if an alternative to the existing Southern Cross Cable Network is necessary. And if it is, does that imply there’s something broken that government can fix by regulation or means other than building a fresh cable?

Replacing Southern Cross

Southern Cross will need replacing at some point and we don’t want to leave it to the last-minute. On the other hand, money is tight, perhaps it could be better spent elsewhere now and the problem revisited later.

Security is an issue. Southern Cross is a loop with two lines in and out of the country, that’s better than a single point of failure. A new cable will make us more secure. What would be the optimum number of cables for a country with a population of less than five million?

Does a new submarine cable need to stretch right across the Pacific when a simple drop across the Tasman could offer a quicker and cheaper alternative?

Is this something best left to market forces or is there a case for government involvement. How do we square China’s enthusiasm to take part when the US and Australian governments are hostile towards firms like Huawei?

Media coverage of a report from IDC Research says sales of Wi-Fi only tablets have passed sales of 3G models in Australia and New Zealand.

IDC’s analyst explained the shift away from mobile networks to Wi-Fi in terms of product offerings. This misses the point: for most people 3G doesn’t make sense on a tablet.

3G option is costly

Adding 3G, and now with the new iPad, 4G to an Apple tablet adds NZ$200 to the price. For the 16GB iPad, that’s a hefty 27 percent premium. For that kind of money, you need to know you’ll use that tablet while on the move.

To use mobile data you also need a Micro-Sim card and a mobile data account with a carrier. Make that an extra Sim card and account unless you don’t have a mobile phone.

3G is troublesome

When I bought my iPad 2 I decided this would be too much trouble. I might only need to use 3G with my iPad once or twice a month and I didn’t want to deal with extra Sim cards and mobile accounts.

Instead, if I need a 3G iPad connection while I’m on the move I use my mobile phone as a Wi-Fi hub. That way my phone account picks up the data cost.

I’m not likely to travel anywhere with my iPad and not take my phone as well.

Phone Wi-Fi hub fast enough

I haven’t benchmarked speeds on my iPad and phone combination against a 3G iPad alternative because the comparison is not important. My set up is more than fast enough for my everyday needs, the only drawback is using my phone as a Wi-Fi hub drains the batteries faster than normal use.

This approach means less administration and it consolidates all my data buying in a single account which means economies of scale.

If you’re always on the run and need plenty of data a 3G tablet might make more sense, for most users it doesn’t.

When they want to create something that looks like a grass-roots campaign, but isn’t, big companies use astroturfing.

The Drop the Rate campaign that began yesterday with support from Consumer, Tuanz and 2degrees is a classic example.

At first sight it’s aims are laudable. Lord knows we pay way over the odds for mobile phone services. The campaign aims to put pressure on Vodafone and Telecom to cut the mobile termination rate or MTR. This is the amount one phone company has to pay another when customers call between networks.

Drop the rate mate campaign website

There’s no question New Zealand’s MTRs are high by international standards. That’s only part of the reason mobile phones are far more expensive to run here than in Australia – or just about anywhere else. It is also a major brake on the economy – calls that could be made, possibly should be made, are going unmade because of the high costs involved.

Yet despite it being worthy in principle, there’s something phony (or should that be phoney?) about the Drop the Rate campaign.

For a start, there’s an expensive PR company behind it.

Who is paying Matthew Hooton’s fee? Good on him for getting the job, but you can be sure Exceltium isn’t collecting money from cake stands and sausage sizzles for this work.

Second, 2degrees doesn’t want to talk about the MTRs it pays to Vodafone and Telecom and has gone to extraordinary lengths to make sure grass roots, that’s real grass, not astroturf, New Zealanders don’t get to know the rate.

Of course no-one can blame 2degrees for taking part in this kind of stunt. Telecom and Vodafone play hardball. And both are less than snow-white in their marketing and political lobbying.

Campaign gets wide media coverage

Hooton certainly proved his PR skills. The Kiwi specialist press was full of the story. At The National Business Review Chris Keall expressed some weariness about the campaign in 2degrees again a little sneaky on MTRs at the National Business Review. The story got a good run in the New Zealand Herald and the Dominion Post.

At Computerworld Rob O’Neill seems more willing to take the campaign at face value. His Drop the rate mate’ campaign targets MTRs offers no comment. Paul Clearwater at The Line reports that Vodafone disputes the information on the campaign’s web site in ‘Drop the rate mate’ campaign begins.

Update: Computerworld reports on Hooton’s attack on Telecom and Vodafone in Mobile termination row goes nuclear. The story finishes;

Hooton has words for Telecom, too, as the MTR debate goes white hot.
“Telecom now seems to be saying that it needs to rip off mobile consumers in order to fund more investment in the industry,” he said. “Good luck to Telecom arguing that a cosy duopoly leads to more investment in services and coverage than a more competitive environment.”

My opinion: Hooton proves he is a worthy campaigner against the arrogance of Telecom and Vodafone – clearly he was the right man for the campaign. Despite this, I’m still not comfortable with the astroturfing.

No-one doubts the quantity of information on the internet, what about its quality?

There are millions of websites. Each site can have one page or thousands. Which means there is a lot of information out there – a few gazillion words and pictures.

It’s the kind of resource our ancestors would have killed for. Indeed, in ancient times they fought wars over access to knowledge repositories.

Would they fight the same wars to get net access? Probably. Our ancestors liked a good scrap.

While the modern Internet might be chock-a-block with information, it’s light on knowledge. It is not always the place to seek wisdom.

Let’s face it, how many dead bodies would you walk over to unearth the lyrics of ‘Spice Up Your Life’?

Information but thin on knowledge

Catalogues of high-resolution photographs showing supermodels in bathing costumes might be aesthetically pleasing. But unless you are a rather slow teenage boy wanting to study female anatomy, the knowledge content is slight.

Likewise all those painstakingly collected lists of quotes by The Simpsons characters: entertainment value high, enlightenment quotient low.

Then there are the millions of dumb home pages filled with photos of cuddly animals, basketball stars and soft porn princesses. Adventurous, but unimaginative amateur developers decorate pages with sound clips of heavy metal or rap. Some even craft complex Java scripts that do nothing special.

If you’re brave, you can find some of the most atrocious poetry ever written.

Surf the net at random and you’ll find page after page of pure rubbish, mind-numbing sameness and precious little gold.

Professional rubbish too

Of course, the web isn’t just the domain of gifted (or otherwise) non-professionals. These days commercial sites run by highly trained specialists dominate. Of these, most either sell something directly or people who sell things finance them.

Which dilutes their value as independent information sources. How much credence would you give to free online personal finance advice given to you by a bank?

In engineer-speak, the Internet has a low signal-to-noise ratio.

That is, you have to sort through a great deal of rubbish to find anything worthwhile. But that implies a message is there. There might not be. Even if you know exactly what you are looking for and use the best search tools, you can still come badly unstuck.

A chilling example

A medical doctor recently surveyed 20 websites offering help with self-treatment of common ailments. Each site looked plausible. Yet of the 20 sites, only three offered advice that squared with the accepted medical procedure. A number of the sites offered seriously flawed advice. Some were no more than quackery. We’re not talking about cultural differences; we are talking snake oil. Sooner or later, real people with real health problems are going to roll up at these sites, take the advice at face value and damage themselves.

This isn’t funny.

In my view, the worst aspect of this problem is that the good, well-researched information is drowned out by the sheer volume of trash. Web-boosters used to say users would learn to recognise good information from bad by its brand. So, for example, you might trust a news report from the ABC, BBC or CNN, but not from the National Enquirer. There’s certainly some truth to the idea. But would you know which brand to turn to for medical information or financial advice?