UFB: Ultra flippin' boring

The fracas about the UFB is missing the point entirely.

The fight to regulate the telcos is soooo last decade.

Followers of Wellington fisticuffs now have a new sport: watching broadcasters and publishers scrap over the right to distribute content on the new, ultra-fast broadband network.

Personally, I find the whole thing ever-so- retro and dull. And it misses the point. So for your edification:
– If you want to know about the scrap, keep reading.
– If you want to know why it misses the point, go to the end.

The scrap
In one corner is Sussan Turner, chief cheese at MediaWorks (owners of TV3 et al), who told the recent Future of Broadband conference that UFB will fail unless the government regulates the media. Specifically, she wants content providers to be forced to operate a wholesale market for TV and sports rights.

In the other is Sky TV, which says there’s no need to intervene; a wholesale market already exists and anyway, there’s plenty of competition for content from that little thing called the internet.

What’s Turner’s beef? At issue is Sky’s ability (thanks to years of investment) to buy the rights to mainstream sports and movie content, then offer that content in packaged deals to its customers. MediaWorks and others have complained that Sky’s wholesale terms are onerous.

Whether they are onerous to the point of being anti-competitive is yet to be established. Turner certainly thinks so, as does much of the bloggerati, which went nuts following her acerbic onstage debate with Sky TV director and chief executive John Fellet.

Sky’s first test might happen sooner than anyone expected. The Commerce Commission is investigating the potential dominance of Igloo, the new TVNZ-Sky TV pay-channel announced late last year. Most experts reckon Igloo will scrape through, but even if it doesn’t, calls for regulation fall on deaf ears in government. Minister of ICT Amy Adams sees no need. For one thing Sky already does sell wholesale content, and second, a host of technologies such as Apple TV are due to provide technological alternatives to Sky. Intervention is like taking a knife into a gun fight (those are my words, not hers).

If it all sounds horribly familiar, you’re not wrong. Sky TV is the new Telecom. MediaWorks is the new TelstraClear. Amy Adams is Maurice Williamson and the government is the same ‘hands free’ National mob that created, according to conference speaker Dwayne Winseck, “the free-market fantasy years” that resulted in slower speeds, lower penetration and datacaps that infuriate Stephen Fry.

The point
Yes it’s horribly familiar. But it’s also horribly boring. With a capital B.

According to the debate so far, the main outcome of the UFB is to watch rugby and reruns of the X Factor. But we’ve missed a beat. The genius of broadband is the ability for New Zealand to reach the five billion people with mobile devices, not for overseas media companies to target 4.2 million Kiwis. So far the debate over UFB has focused on the domestic consumption of internet. It’s the wrong emphasis. Yes, it makes good copy for journos to report the fightin’ words of Sussan Turner, but frankly I couldn’t give a toss about some over-leveraged, debt-laden Aussie private-equity play. Nor should the rest of us.

Far more important is that our kids stop watching TV and start creating it. Stop consuming the internet and get on the tools to build the next Facebook, Google and Twitter. Or finding channels for promoting great New Zealand film and food and fashion and science.

I blame the industry. No-one is articulating what UFB could actually mean for New Zealand. Crown Fibre Holdings made some low-cost video case studies. And occasionally a politician makes a speech about driving down the superhighway. But who’s providing the spine-tingling leadership that excites a generation of Kiwi creative and producers?

This vacuum highlights one of the huge problems with UFB: apart from trench- diggers like Chorus, the industry doesn’t particularly want it. Shipping companies and ports probably said the same thing about refrigeration. In which case, someone else should show the way.

Who’s up for it?

Vincent Heeringa is a co-founder of Idealog and too busy to help just now

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