For some time now, Chorus have been running a competition to pick one town in New Zealand to be the first to be equipped with gigabit fibre. For some, the competition might seem trivial, a time waster, and a strange way to determine where to roll out new technology first. On the other hand there is potential economic benefit to be gained, and via the competition, Chorus has done its best to level the playing field so the common complaint that the regions are always last when it comes to new technology doesn't have to be the case.
For Blenheim, access to gigabit fibre could potentially have a significant impact on the local economy, but only if it's managed well. As a geographically isolated region with a small and aging population, the region needs economic activity that can overcome these limitations without destroying the positive aspects of region, such as the many wilderness areas, the lack of severe traffic congestion as found in main centres, and the ability for many to get around by walking or cycling.
To be clear, gigabit fibre is unlikely to provide any benefit to most domestic users over ordinary fibre, however for collaboration between businesses with a number of staff, both in office and those working from home, the potential benefits are more likely to be realised.
IT industries are a perfect fit for Marlborough as long as there is a good connection to the rest of the country and the world. Exporting IT products and services is not affected by geography, and distance does not increase cost of delivery. The one thing that the IT service industry does require, energy, is something that Marlborough has the potential to supply cost effectively and renewably, while minimising environmental impact. Marlborough has high sunshine hours, many locations with good wind resources, and as yet untapped tidal resources with the potential to supply more energy than the largest existing generation in the country.
Combine cheap, green energy with IT services, and existing green industries such as forestry, and Marlborough could easily brand itself as the green capital of NZ, all the while raising the standard of living and GDP to levels typically associated with petroleum exporting nations. This is not a fantastic dream, but something that is a real possibility.
Gigabit broadband is just one of the pieces in the puzzle that can help turn Marlborough into a high value economy. It's not a magic bullet, and local businesses, council and others will need to collaborate to realise the potential. Looking at top tech companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others, contrary to the stereotypical image of nerdy programmers, many of the staff of such companies are highly intelligent, social, active people, many with strong environmental and social values, and with a desire to have fun when they're not working. While they might like their gadgets and coffee, they're equally likely to be found enjoying the outdoors, radical sports, fine dining, and cultural activities. While there will be some nerds in cubicles too, if they're the only ones catered for, then simply gaining access to gigabit broadband isn't going to attract many people.
One of good things about having high speed internet, is that it will in itself be an enabling technology, making it easier for physically distributed organisations to share data and ideas. From a technical standpoint, all local businesses, and even domestic users, will suddenly have the potential to be linked as though they were all in the same physical office. At first this might appear a threat to landlords if businesses choose to work in a distributed virtual environment with staff working from home, but the flip side is there is likely to be demand for data centres which will provide huge potential for the local construction industry and property developers.
With collaboration, also comes risk. If all local businesses and even domestic users are linked to each other at speeds previously only possible in in-house networks, security is going to be critical. If someone gets hacked and has trusted data connections with other local businesses and individuals, the consequences could be catastrophic. Computer security experts don't come cheap, and are some of the highest paid professionals in the IT industry, so Marlborough needs to budget for this if it intends to fully embrace gigabit.
Although at this stage, only Blenheim will stand to benefit directly if it wins the Gigatown competition, there are potential flow on effects for the whole of Marlborough, however good planning needs to be in place so smaller centres can benefit too. For example if people are going to commute to Blenheim to work where the internet is fastest, what public transport is going to be available? The current roading infrastructure is unlikely to be able to cope with a significant increase in commuter vehicles, and they're not good from an environmental perspective.
Chorus has been promoting gigabit fibre as the way of the future via their gigatown competition. Whether or not it eventuates any time in the near future in Blenheim, hopefully the discussion generated will get people thinking about possibilities to improve the prosperity of Marlborough, while preserving our unique regional values.