Hard News by Russell Brown

Economically incorrect

Several readers have alerted me to this interesting report for the US Council on Foreign Relations on the success - and otherwise - of different national strategies on broadband deployment. It should be required reading for New Zealand policy-makers.

Principally, it contrasts the American approach with that of Japan - and concludes that unless its strategic approach changes, the US will miss out on "the benefits of the broadband era: economic growth, increased productivity, and a better quality of life." Lord knows what the author would make of New Zealand's predicament.

The lesson from Japan - and from Canada for that matter - is that a conventional, high-minded, regulatory and economic approach won't get the job done. Instead, the Japanese went for it in a manner that would, in our economic environment, be considered enormously politically incorrect:

The telecommunications ministry came up with one of the most competitive regimes in the world: it compelled regional telephone companies to grant outside competitors access to all their residential telephone lines in exchange for a modest fee (about $2 per line a month). The antitrust authorities also ensured that these companies did not create obstacles for their competitors, helping provide a level playing field. The results were extraordinary …

The government used tax breaks, debt guaranties, and partial subsidies. It allowed companies willing to lay fiber to depreciate about one-third of the cost on first-year taxes, and it guaranteed their debt liabilities. These measures were sufficient to ensure that new fiber was laid in cities and large towns, but in rural areas, municipal subsidies were also needed. Towns and villages willing to set up their own ultra-high-speed fiber networks received a government subsidy covering approximately one-third of their costs, so long as those networks, too, were open to outside access.

It comes down to two things: pervasive deployment of fibre and the lowering of barriers to competition. Our government has the chance to set the right conditions in the way it handles the proposed Advanced Network, and in dealing firmly with anti-competitive behaviour by incumbents.

The portents at the moment don't look great. Telecom seems likely to miss its promised broadband targets ("250,000 residential customers using high-speed internet services by the end of this year, and a third of those would be customers of competitors wholesaling broadband services from Telecom"), and even that's under the rather fanciful description of "high speed" meaning anything faster than dial-up.

The slow growth of the wholesale DSL market may not be entirely inadvertent. Telecom has reportedly been slow to the point of obstruction in handing over existing JetStream customers to those ISPs who won the right to retail their own DSL products.

Dave Crampton at Big News has some more salient observations on the Prostitution Law Review Committee's benchmark report, concluding that the number of sex workers may well have increased since 2001, but that that simply can't be attributed to the Prostitution Law Reform Act. He also points out a couple of things no one else seems to have noted: fewer sex workers under 18 (despite the benchmark report being much broader than the 2001 police study), and an alarming number of prostitute who don't appear to have New Zealand work permits. Maxim, as usual, is making sweeping claims on tenuous evidence.

Peter Ashby was in touch from the UK regarding a recent post:

Nice column as usual but, read your list of countries and something jumps out. Only two have the definite article: Czech Republic and Ukraine. The former is ok as it is hard in English to say it without a "the" in front. Not so Ukraine. There was a bit in the Guardian a few months ago about this and it seems the Ukrainians get annoyed about it. Why? Because the Russians have traditionally used it in the way you would with say the Northern Territory or the Yukon, to emphasise that it is a region, a province and not a country. Now it is a country the Ukrainians are understandably keen to be known just as Ukraine.

The Herald has John Tamihere back in action already - briefly fronting a hui on Maori smoking rates - with the suggestion that he has been stirred by his alarming result in the Marae-Digipoll survey. But what might be more interesting is his apparently still-scheduled keynote speech on 'Men in Policy and Politics' at the New Zealand Men's Issues Summit on May 6 (thanks to Tze Ming for the link).

Not being a student of church affairs, I hadn't realised how many reformist Catholics had been holding out for change after the passing of John Paul II. Those people are now understandably deeply disappointed at the election of Cardinal Ratzinger to the papacy - or, in the case of Andrew Sullivan, utterly flat-out distraught: "I was trying to explain last night to a non-Catholic just how dumb-struck many reformist Catholics are by the elevation of Ratzinger. And then I found a way to explain. This is the religious equivalent of having had four terms of George W. Bush only to find that his successor as president is Karl Rove. Get it now?"

Meanwhile, a Gallup poll has suggested that three quarters of American Catholics (albeit off a small sample) say they are more likely to follow their own conscience on "difficult moral questions," rather than the teachings of Pope Benedict XVI. The prospect of a Church of Rome where Rome is ignored on the major issues - in the West, anyway - seems quite real.

Meanwhile, an Al-Jazeera opinion piece declares that Bush's recent miserable approval rating in polls means that "The house of Bush is collapsing. The Mother of America will survive."

Riverbend has had her Baghdad Burning blog published as a book. Alternet has an interview with "the girl blogger from Iraq". Meanwhile, she's been blogging about Marla Ruzicka, who had been trying to conduct a definitive count of Iraqi civilian casualties, and the bizarre and chilling hostage crisis story. Today in Iraq has links on that and more. God knows what's going there …