Chris DiBona and I went to Kiwi Foo Camp in Warkworth, just north of Auckland this past week. What a great experience! Compared to the Sebastopol Foo Camp I attended in 2006, this one was smaller, but at the same time it felt like it was easier to meet more people and have more in depth conversations with them. Kudos to everyone who made this happen. The location was Mahurangi College, s the setting was strangely familiar - standard 1960s NZ classroom architecture, large sports field, etc.
I gave a session talking about some of Firefox’s roots in the bad old days of Netscape’s mis-management of the Mozilla project. Specifically, I mentioned focus and willful leaders as part of the recipes for the success of projects like Firefox and Camino. But more interesting to me personally were some of the other themes that ran through the gathering.
One of them which I will talk about here is the issue of available, inexpensive broadband in New Zealand. When Iw as in NZ in 2001 and 2002, I used Telecom JetStream for high speed internet access. Compared to the US, the cost was extraordinarily high (I regularly hit NZ$200-400 bills monthly) but the performance was reasonable. I figured that the broadband situation would have improved since I had left for the US in 2003, but I was wrong. Superficially, it seemed like things might be a little better - there were now a range of services all promising “maximum speed” and lower costs than before. The first problem though was readily visible to my eye as someone with an interest in user experience. Right off the bat, the telcos deluge the potential customer with a range of choices in plans. The issue is not that there are choices but that consumers are forced to choose between plans where the differences between them are intangible and not easily understood. It’s not like you’re choosing between Sky TV with Sky Movies and/or Sky Sport. Instead you choose between 1GB transfer quota or 5GB transfer quota or unlimited transfer except if you download too much outside the hours of 2am and 8am then Telecom might squeeze you and so on. To help customers navigate the choices, the various ISPs provide tables comparing the transfer quotas to fixed numbers of viewed web pages, downloaded mp3s, movie trailers, online gaming etc.
The issue is that real internet usage is mixed, and page size varies wildly. So there’s no real way to give a good estimation of how much data someone would use in a month. To budget minded people like myself, using the internet would become an exercise in caution and fear of exceeding the quota. The consequences aren’t extra billing as in the old days, but rather a slowdown of service back to dialup speeds which can be just as painful. The net effect of all of this is to discourage free and regular use of the internet, which I believe harms businesses that wish to build advanced applications on it. With the web becoming key to people’s lives in other developed countries (and groups like the OLPC project seeking to extend that into the developing world), draconian restrictions on the amount of content you can access seem like arbitrary limitations.
I called IHUG, a local ISP to ask some questions about getting broadband. I was put on hold for a good 10 minutes. I wonder if this represents a priority on IHUG’s part towards existing customer service. Might be a good thing. No US company would ever make a prospective customer wait this long. But who knows!
In the US, generally you receive a much better signup experience - you ring the provider and they take your money and turn it on pretty quickly (unless it’s SBC then they make you wait 2-3 weeks since they already have your money). But generally it’s an all you can eat access plan.
So, what are some reasons for the complex NZ situation, and what do Kiwis think about it?
There was a session at Kiwi Foo with Telecommunications Minister David Cunliffe, which was illuminating, and I learned a lot more about the predicament from a technical perspective listening to the questions. But first off, I’ll mention that I raised my concerns about the complexity of broadband plans, and at least few people were apathetic. The problem is that it’s easy enough as a technology savvy person to reasonably estimate your internet usage and come up with the right plan for you. But regular folk just can’t be expected to do this. The computing novice might not factor their desire to use Skype or iChat AV into their download quota calculation because they don’t necessarily correlate that task with “downloading” in the strictest sense. What this really is is nothing more than exposing the implementation detail (data transfer) to users, confusing them when they’re thinking in terms of tasks. It’s sort of similar to the situation we had in Mozilla with SeaMonkey - a UI that only a geek could love.
The difference though is that the situation with broadband plans is a very deliberate move on the part of the network wholesaler (Telecom) to create this confusion, in order to undermine net neutrality and maintain their retail service hegemony. More on that in a little bit though.
The problems with broadband in New Zealand run much deeper though. Since I left New Zealand, Telecom has been gradually promoting broadband more and more for household use, and as usage has grown, the network has been put under strain. In some areas, it is impossible to get the service, and in others the speeds are slow to the point of unusable (dial up speeds, through the summer with lots of kids online). Access to the service has proven to be a challenge even in urban areas, like Auckland’s ritzy Paritai Drive, less than ten minutes drive from the center of town (link )
Until 2006, the incentive for Telecom to improve the quality or lower the cost of its offerings was limited, since it faced almost no competition in the market. To deal with this, in 2006 the government unveiled a plan to force “local loop unbundling” whereby Telecom would have to allow other companies to use its network and install equipment in its exchanges to allow more competition in telephone and internet access. (link ) Things seemed like they might get better from a competitive standpoint, but in the wake of this development, the contention by many of the folk in the room in Warkworth was that Telecom has remained as adversarial as ever, saying that yes people can install equipment in their exchanges, except the exchanges have no room and not enough power. (link) On top of this, speeds have suffered in large part due to some infrastructure hiccups that have occurred due to a bizarre interaction between Telecom and TelstraClear (the other major telco in NZ) that I still don’t completely understand. All parties seem unwilling to find a fix to the issue, and the result has been a dramatic loss of broadband performance. (NZ is already behind the pack, at 22nd out of 30 in the OECD (link). Otherfolk understand and explain the scenario better than I can however.
Fortunately, the Minister seemed receptive to the suggestions from the room, and perhaps there can be some kind of resolution here. I hope so. After griping about broadband in New Zealand for some time and not really understanding the technical details of the situation on the ground, and hearing more recently the debate surrounding Net Neutrality in the US, I have begun to think more and more of the telephone and internet network as a social service, much like the road system. It is a key component to people’s ability to express themselves and project their presence, and it seems like a competent, simple system should be available to all New Zealanders for a reasonable cost.
At Foo Camp, I heard people speculate on Telecom using its control of the infrastructure to deliberately interfere with certain types of network traffic, to undermine the value of competitors to its retail service. It sounded like a scenario similar to the one that the US Telcos want to implement in the US. The advantage Telecom has is that regular New Zealanders don’t have a simple flexible inexpensive broadband system yet to be taken from them - US customers do. What New Zealanders do have though is a telephone company that was originally their own, and so in my opinion we have a right to feel mighty indignant about the disgusting practices its privatized incarnation not only uses but also gloats about.
I will have more to say on software development in New Zealand in my next blog post, but I’ll wrap up here by saying I think New Zealand has a huge opportunity here to become yet another high tech center, much like Dublin. New Zealanders are known for their creativity, a trait that lends itself well to high quality and innovative software. With much of manufacturing and production moving to other parts of the world, countries like New Zealand need to be able to rapidly move the workforce to other areas where they have skills and there is a need. The cornerstone to having a workforce capable of doing this with technology is to provide everyone with a reliable, speedy and affordable service. Looking at the work I have done in the past few years, how I started contributing to the Mozilla project back in 1999 etc, I can confidently say I don’t think I would have been able to accomplish so much had I remained on slow speeds.
I am separated from my memory card reader, so I will post photos from Foo Camp later, I promise.