REANNZ turns ten: What does the future hold?
This year REANNZ (New Zealand's Advanced Research and Education network) celebrates its tenth anniversary as New Zealand's high-performance telecommunications network, serving our education, research and innovation communities, and allowing those sectors to collaborate, and compete, on a global stage.
To mark the occasion, REANNZ communications manager, Kim Partridge, sat down with Jamie Baddeley - President of InternetNZ, and the (former) FX Networks executive responsible for brokering the REANNZ network infrastructure deal, to get his thoughts on the importance and future of the internet in New Zealand.
To begin, can you please give us a bit of insight into who you are and what you do?
I entered the sector in 1993, but things seriously started at FX Networks, back in 2003. When I first joined the team, it was just me, the founder and a cell phone and some supportive friends, but by the time I left, nearly a decade later in 2012, we'd built that up to about 140 people and north of $40M revenues per annum.
During that time, we pitched twice for the REANNZ contract. The first time in 2004, thankfully, we didn't win it, because in hindsight we weren't equipped at that point to handle the network's demands. The second time we did, however, and that saw us become the network provider for New Zealand's National Research & Education Network - that was in 2010.
I was also elected to the InternetNZ council in 2006. I stepped into the role of Vice President in 2009, and have been President now for the last couple of years.
And how would you describe InternetNZ's mission, in your own words?
In the broadest sense, we work to protect and promote the Internet, as well as its uses and benefits, to the New Zealand public at large.
At the core of that is the notion that the Internet should be open - so it's not dominated by any one party, and the barriers to entry - to get on it, make use of it, add to it, improve it, and so on - remain really low.
To my mind, it's that which is a real point of alignment between our values at InternetNZ, and what REANNZ does. REANNZ allows us to answer the question of "What would happen if the resources available to our researchers, academics, were boundless, and they could explore in any direction they wanted to? What would happen if they weren't constrained?"
Those sorts of values have an awful lot in common with the openness principles that InternetNZ holds. With openness, and low barriers to entry comes innovation, and so protecting and continuing to promote those ideals, will in turn, see the internet develop and improve.
At the moment, there is also a big question around accessibility, and getting more people online. It must also be a concern for InternetNZ?
It's a challenging one, because while having the internet or networking universally available is one thing, there's also the matter of universal affordability.
We're certainly focused on doing everything we can to make sure that the network is as ubiquitous as possible, because if you don't have that you're already behind the eight-ball.
That said, unfortunately affordability isn't something that folks in the networking technology space can necessarily speak to - it becomes a far deeper economic issue. So I'd always caution the accessibility debate, with that around affordability.
You've been involved in New Zealand's internet community for a long time. What, to your mind, is the single most important development or technological advancement that's taken place over that time?
Without a doubt, the advancements that have taken place in networking technology, and the growth in capacity that has enabled. Across any given medium, capacity has gone up orders of magnitude in just a couple of decades.
The growth in alternative access technologies, such as wireless, is another.
What has also been really crucial for New Zealand, was the establishment of the internet exchange points that helped bring new entrants into the telco sector - creating more of a competitive market. And indeed some of those new entrants have gone from very small to number three or four in the marketplace - although of course there are those that have gone the other way.
It goes without saying that REANNZ coming into existence has had a big impact, certainly for the research and academic sector.
You were part of the team that helped see FX networks selected as the preferred network infrastructure provider for REANNZ. What did that make possible for REANNZ and its members that might have previously been unavailable?
If you're working to create a boundless network, that's an unqualified thing - so every time there's limits put somewhere, no matter how big or small they are, it's no longer boundless.
Up until that point, the REANNZ network was a managed 10Gbps circuit, and although that was pretty fast by early 2000s standards, that bandwidth was always going to be chewed up pretty quickly.
By offering a lit 10Gbps solution, combined with a dark fibre future, that unlocked a lot of potential, and ultimately with the transition to the dark fibre enabled Infinera network in 2013, the future was hundreds of Gbps. For 4 to 5 million people, that's approaching boundless.
In order to properly support the needs of NZ's research, education and innovation communities, there needed to be strong foundations put in place - and I think that's the key proposition FX was offering. The base needs to be very strong.
It was the first step towards REANNZ becoming a truly unconstrained path.
What are your thoughts on the Government funding organisations like REANNZ? Should New Zealand be investing in this?
Yes - absolutely it should be funded.
All you hear from central government, here in New Zealand and in many countries overseas, is that science, technology, engineering and medicines, the STEM group, is where we need to be. That's where our future capability lies.
It's incongruous to me that you can, on the one hand, be promoting that as our future, and not, at the same time, be supporting the network which actually enables all of that. The two must go hand in hand.
In your current role as President of InternetNZ, you're responsible for advocating for a better world via a better internet. What does that mean to you?
For me, it goes back to when I was first introduced to computers. I was 13 years old, at a low-decile school, in a small seaside town in the North Island. Somehow, the school had managed to get its hands on a computer (an Apple IIe as I recall), which was shared by all the kids - and a handful of us were selected to take part in night classes, that would teach us how to use it.
One night the computer teacher said to me, "You know there are American computer scientists trying to build a global network?" - and I remember thinking how extraordinary that was.
I asked him, "what are they trying to do that for?", and he said, "well, when people can communicate properly they have less to fight about."
It's that same ethos that InternetNZ has in advocating for an open internet, and a better world through a better internet - because whenever you put up barriers, you create conflict. Networks that enable people to communicate with each other openly are critically important, and that's why I got involved in this industry.
What are some of the initiatives that InternetNZ are involved in to try and help create a better New Zealand and a better internet?
Once upon a time the internet was a network defined by the fact that everyone on it vaguely knew each other, and there was a shared sense of community. As the network has taken off, however, it's not like that anymore. There are a lot of different communities online - good folk and some not so good folk, and sadly, it's started to become weaponised.
So a big part of what we're doing now is focused on protecting the "good" from the "bad", and enabling the "good" to deal with the "bad". We're helping people to respond to security and privacy matters in a sensible way.
For example, it's great to see the Government's finally established a "Computer Emergency Response Teams", or CERT initiative, as a centralised response for security threats, across both the public and private sectors.
The US has had that sort of initiative in one form or another for as long as I can remember. The Aussies have had it for years, so we needed to catch up in that respect.
What are some of the core trends, the key things that you're seeing taking place at the moment, that you think are likely to change the shape of the internet?
Consumerisation, without a doubt.
Back in the beginning, in order to be connected to the internet, you generally had to know something about it - that knowledge was a prerequisite if you were going to be able to make use of it. These days, though, anyone can pick up a tablet for a few hundred bucks, and be online within minutes, without knowing at all how it all works.
To get the last "n" percent online, you need to make it so intuitive and easy to use. Of course the danger there is that folks don't necessarily understand the risks associated with being on a global, open community. So, there's a need to educate people about those risks, and how to manage their online life safely.
Could you talk to that idea of consumerisation a bit more?
The problem with any infrastructure is that, over time, if you don't continue to develop it, value it, invest in it, it's in danger of becoming obsolete.
The thing with the Internet being so ubiquitous, is that it's almost taken for granted - and there's the danger that people might forget what's involved in making it work, and the kind of capability and skills that are needed to keep it going.
I don't think we're in danger of that at the moment, but we must continue investing in people who have the capability, skills and understanding about how IT networks work, and what we can and can't do with it at a deep technical and commercial and practical way.
This is why organisations like REANNZ are so important.
What do you mean by risks?
It seems that every day you pick up the paper, and someone else has been scammed or phished or swindled. That all comes about through people's increased ability to communicate with each other.
It's always been a risk, but the big difference now is scale. It's so cheap and easy for the "bad" few to get in contact with a large amount of people in a short space of time - and get access to those crucial personal details.
From an industry perspective, we've got a lot of work to do. The first 20 years of the internet were defined by a focus on technical capabilities, getting it ready for everyone. We've largely achieved that - we've got a workable, reliable network, that mostly meets people's expectations.
The problem now, comes around that security element. The internet wasn't designed to be secure, it was designed to be open and easy to connect with other countries and people - and the challenge now is how to make that more secure, without introducing too many restrictions.
We've talked about security and how important it is to educate people about potential pitfalls - are there any positive trends that you see happening?
Every day the IT network is getting more effective, and globally interconnected. Every year people are coming up with new creative applications for people to connect with each other and improve their lives. The internet and immediate, connected applications such as these are making people's everyday lives easier and less stressful.
For example, I was in the US recently with my family, and we had our accommodation cancel on us at the last minute. What would have once been a nightmare scenario, involving long processes of searching through the phonebook and speculating on what places are worth staying at and what was good value, could be sorted in five minutes sitting in our car in a nice side street via the Internet. It was done, no problem.
How well do you think New Zealand is doing in global terms?
I think we're doing well in many fundamental measures. The investment in our domestic fibre infrastructure has been fantastic - we've actually got fibre going out there reaching large numbers of people who are taking the service and making use of it. We've also got new cable infrastructure going into Australia which is excellent to see.
It is always good to have another player in the marketplace so I think competition is crucial. Hawaiki Cable coming along is fabulous, and of course that's prompted Southern Cross to start talking about a new Pacific cable as well - that competition is fantastic.
But we need to keep our eye on how we make use of this infrastructure. What we do with it next, and how we make the most of it in the long term is the real test.
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