New Zealand: Innovation Fatigue and the Internet

After a charming 10-day trip to New Zealand, several things stood out in my mind: the overwhelming beauty of its landscapes and vegetation, the abundance of resources its islands have, the cleanness of the air and water, the friendliness and resourcefulness of its people, and the difficulty of getting basic Internet in an advanced nation. Some of the small hotels where we stayed didn’t have Internet access at all, and nearly all of the others had inadequate or surprisingly expensive service. For example, after paying for an hour of Internet access, it quit working after about 10 minutes. The hotel said I had exceeded the data limit of 20 Megabytes (or was it 50?). I had only sent a few emails and done two or three searches on Google. How could my data limit be exceeded? I was then asked if I had turned off automatic updates or other background services on my computer that can eat up data limits quickly. Apparently between background updates and Carbonite backup going on, I, like many other chagrined travelers to New Zealand, had whipped through the stingy data limits that are typical of hotel Internet plans. 20 Mb for an hour, or 50 MB for a 24-hour pass. Stingy! One place didn’t seem to have a limit, at least not that we knew of, but the general perception from our stay was that Internet is expensive and limited in New Zealand, and that’s not a healthy thing in the Information Age. It’s a sign of barriers to innovation.

After asking around, I learned that the problem appears to be with the Internet provider, Telecom, which has something of but not exactly a monopoly, and has been criticized for years for its overly expensive and restrictive policies. Competition makes companies better, and monopoly powers from government tend to make them unresponsive and expensive. That seems to be the case in New Zealand, where politicians continue to prop up Telecom at the expense of the public good. See “Telecom’s New Monopoly” by Chris Barton in the New Zealand Herald.

Innovation fatigue can occur when a government interferes with commerce to favor one player at the expense of all others. “Crony capitalism” is one flavor of this problem. It means inherent barriers to commerce and to innovation, and reduced ability to create in the affected area. New Zealand has some incredible programmers and software services, but all such innovators are hindered when internet access is restricted and not as competitive as it should be. The problem with Telecom is likely to be a problem in many easy-to-miss sectors of New Zealand’s economy, where innovation is a buzzword but may not be nearly as vibrant as possible if a government actually realizes the danger of being an unintended barrier to innovation through excessive interference in the marketplace.

I wish the hardy and fiercely independent Kiwis success in finding innovation success and getting barriers like Telecom to stand down and let the nation move forward more rapidly. It’s a story, though, that can be repeated in various ways in almost every nation today.

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