Behind the official broadband numbers
When Communications and Information Technology Minister Amy Adams released the latest progress report on the two government-sponsored broadband projects mainstream media outlets carried straightforward reports of the numbers.
But what do the numbers really say? Is the UFB really on target and how many people have *actually* signed up? This week TechBlog Editor Bill Bennett takes a closer look at the numbers and what they mean.
At the NBR Chris Keall encapsulated the story with a lengthy, possibly over-precise headline: With rollout a quarter complete, the number within reach of UFB fibre who choose to connect nudges up to 5.49%. The New Zealand Herald's Hamish Fletcher used fewer words, but the message was much the same: Ultra-fast broadband uptake picks up speed.
For the record, the rather dull-named Quarterly Broadband Deployment Update says 27 percent of people living in the UFB area now have access to the network. That doesn't mean a connection. It means the fibre network passes within a few metres of their property.
The report goes on to say more than five percent of people who have network access have signed up for fibre services. There are also RBI numbers, some 179,000 rural New Zealanders have network access either to wireless or improved copper-based services.
While the Herald story barely departed from the official, scripted press statement, NBR readers who made it to the fifth paragraph would learn that Trevor Mallard thinks the numbers are "hopeless".
It would be fair to say most mainstream media took a positive or neutral view of the report. Most outlets repeated Amy Adams' point that the fibre uptake in New Zealand so far is broadly inline with what happened elsewhere in the world.
One possible narrative is that despite all the fuss over Chorus, its finances and the price of a copper broadband connection, the fibre rollout is still on schedule. Another is that journalists have reported all the bad stuff to do with the UFB project, so we'll just let these numbers speak for themselves.
Either way, the people who regularly report on technology and telecommunications have chosen to accept the official release at face value.
At least two high profile New Zealand technology bloggers have a different perspective.
Writing on his blog, Lance Wiggs says:
The real question is how we can increase the pace of actual connections, currently at 1.5 percent.
Where does the 1.5 percent come from when the official number is 5.5 percent? Wiggs' number is the total eventual pool of possible fibre customers. The government only counts the percentage of people currently able to buy a fibre connection.
While it seems logical to measure the progress towards the eventual target and not some mathematical abstraction, it might be seen as an equally meaningless number when only a quarter of the eventual target customers are able to connect, and three quarters don't yet have the option.
Wiggs refers to something that's not openly discussed in government circles: some of the people who want to buy fibre struggle to get connected:
I'm trying to connect myself and can confirm that the anecdotes I've heard to date about the complexity and time are true. There is plenty of money to be made by private sector businesses who accelerate this adoption, and I look forward to seeing who the winners are.
If you haven't heard one of the anecdotes see this comment on Keall's NBR story.
Wellington-based Ian Apperley takes a harder look at the numbers and concludes:
This is called spin. It could be read that 5.49% of people have signed up. The reality is that the percentage relates to the total number of properties rolled past. This means that the actual uptake is somewhere near 1%.
Whether you agree with their perspective or not, Wiggs and Apperley are less interested in quibbling about numbers than about what a closer look reveals. They both argue the business of getting New Zealanders onto the fibre network is too slow. Apperley worries that at the current rate it will be 2099 before everyone gets a fibre connection.
Are they right to be concerned? Possibly. If the business of getting a fibre connection is as torturous as some of the anecdotes suggest then huge numbers of potential customers won't bother. That's something that needs to be fixed. I've spoke to industry insiders who believe there may be some workarounds, but clearly some leadership needs to come from the top of the project on this.
Yet there are clear indications the number of fibre sign-ups is accelerating. The big ISPs - the ones that collectively have 80 percent of the entire market - have only been selling UFB for a matter of months.
The early adopters - where they have access - have adopted. Now we've on to the second wave, it'll take a little longer still for the cautious majority to climb aboard. This is how all technologies gather steam. It's not time to worry yet.
Bill Bennett is editor of IITP TechBlog and Newsline.
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