9 Ultra-Fast Broadband and the School Network Upgrade Programme
Inquiry into 21st century learning environments and digital literacy
This is the text of the report presented to the New Zealand Parliament in December 2012
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We are aware that the Government is implementing a Network for Learning, and that high-speed Internet connectivity is being rolled out to all schools through the Ultra Fast Broadband (UFB) initiative in urban and provincial centres, and through the Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI). Individual schools are also being rewired under the Schools Network Upgrade Programmes (SNUP) to bring their data and electrical connectivity up to date. We want to ensure that these programmes are implemented in a coordinated fashion and given the necessary priority. We note that the Ministry of Education ran a series of “Learning Without Limits” workshops for schools around the country. Necessary infrastructure, technology, and policy need to continue to be rolled out in a coordinated way to realise the intended benefits.
We heard issues raised by submitters about the rollout of the different components of the ICT infrastructure. Some submitters said that SNUP upgrades are not in synch with broadband rollout, and that the planning of the several programmes—urban and rural broadband connections and rewiring of facilities—was not sequenced, so there is no certainty for resource commitment. We heard from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment that this misalignment is to be expected, as the SNUP upgrades started in 2004, whereas the deployment of UFB and the RBI only started in 2011. Since the deployment, the Ministry of Education has been working to align the two programmes.
We note that information on the availability and price of different components of technical infrastructure comes from various government and private-sector sources (the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, Crown Fibre Holdings Ltd, the Ministry of Education, Chorus Ltd as the wholesale provider, and a range of retail service providers). We heard that it can be difficult for schools to get a clear picture of their technical and commercial options. We heard that the provision of accurate and relevant information to schools on the plans for making infrastructure available is critical. The Ministry of Education provides some information for schools, and links to the websites of other parties for more information.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment provided us with information on the progress of the UFB and RBI programmes, which indicates that fibre is passing the gates of a large number of schools. As at 30 September, 2012, 1,082 schools were passed by fibre, and 14 remote schools were connected using point-to-point wireless connections capable of peak speeds of at least 10Mbps. However, we also heard that the fibre to the gate is just a small part of getting a school connected, which also involves connection from the fibre at the gate to the school buildings, and contracting with a Retail Service Provider (RSP) for the provision of Internet services. We heard that while a number of RSPs have announced plans for schools to connect, they are still at a very early stage of offering other services over new technology. We understand that the Ministry of Education has advised schools that the Network for Learning, a dedicated broadband network for schools, will be implemented from early 2013, providing access to many of the services that schools will need, so schools should not enter into long-term contracts for services with RSPs in the meanwhile. The ministry’s website indicates when some schools can be expected to be connected to UFB/RBI and when they can expect a SNUP upgrade, and provides links to the websites of RSPs. We heard that some submitters feel that there is not a single source of pertinent information for schools.
Schools must negotiate their own contracts with Internet providers. Some submitters commented that their contracts constrained their data use. The Ministry of Education has been helping educate schools in negotiating with Internet service providers, and understanding the contracts, so that they can ensure they are getting what they need. We heard that many schools have not previously needed to negotiate such contracts. We heard from submitters that this was constraining their schools’ operating budgets. We feel that the Government should consider arranging these contracts nationally.
We also heard that the SNUP upgrade does not go far enough, as it does not provide hardware to implement wi-fi access in schools. One submitter suggested that the cost of getting wi-fi added to the SNUP upgrade could be as much as $20,000 per school. We heard repeatedly during the inquiry that students will be accessing more and more content online, and using devices, such as tablets and laptops, that are designed to connect through wi-fi connections. Recommendations
33. We recommend that the Government consider whether SNUP specifications should include high-quality wi-fi coverage in the upgrades provided to schools.
34. We recommend that the Government consider accelerating the SNUP programme.