Mayor plans round table on IT

TOM PULLAR-STRECKER
Last updated 05:00 25/10/2010

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Wellington's information technology industry can expect more limelight following the election of former geek Celia Wade-Brown as mayor, but it is unclear whether the council will revive the leading role it assumed when it undertook its InfoCity initiative in the 1990s.

Ms Wade-Brown, who started her career as a trainee systems engineer with IBM and went on to become a founding councillor of InternetNZ, has floated a "mayoral round table" on information technology, involving business and community leaders.

She said the council's 1995 InfoCity initiative that spawned fibre network operator CityLink and the 20:20 Communications Trust – now Wellington ICT – had petered out.

"When we did InfoCity it was leading-edge. The question is, what is the role for a city council in becoming leading-edge again? Back then it wasn't very expensive to be leading-edge. Now I am not sure what the implications are."

Ms Wade-Brown said Wellington needed to broaden its economic base and "IT is definitely one way of doing that".

The city's strength in IT was partly because of its "wiredness" but also because of its "compact buzzy, nature. What makes Wellington really special is that the geeks get out from behind their screens, and it is very easy for people to meet other technical people. You go down to One Red Dog and you see all sorts of people from different consultancies getting together incredibly easily."

The fact "we are awake when the rest of the world is asleep" and the strength of Wellington's open source software community were both big assets for the IT sector here, she said.

Former InternetNZ president Colin Jackson said mayoral candidate Jack Yan probably got more "geek mindshare" following his promise of free wi-fi for the city, but Ms Wade-Brown had fairly impressive geek credentials. "I am not sure how many people know her in the technology community [as] she has been effectively a professional politician for at least 10 years. She seems to have a good understanding of the benefits IT can give to Wellington."

Mr Jackson and Ms Wade-Brown coincidentally worked for the same small software company in London, Cocking & Drury, where Ms Wade-Brown was its first female employee, programming in the mathematical language APL. In New Zealand, she worked for Databank before setting up a company with her husband running courses in banking software system Hogan.

She said it was important the capital got its share of the $1.35 billion the Government has earmarked to roll out fibre in 33 cities and towns and that TelstraClear might not be comparing "apples with apples" in its billboard campaign which said it was already bringing ultrafast broadband to the capital. While Wellington might already be better connected than some cities it also had "one of the biggest potentials", she said.

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Ms Wade-Brown made her first mayoral speech at a "birthday party" for CityLink, the day after her election. She said the company – now a subsidiary of listed company TeamTalk – had remained true to the initial vision of some of its council-backed founders.

"It still seems to have a remarkably modest cost structure from what I can gather, is innovative and is very supportive of businesses that use its services. Trade Me would not have happened without CityLink, I don't think."

A proposal to provide free wi-fi in parts of the city centre may be expanded and council meetings may be webcast. Ms Wade-Brown said she had already been approached by people who wanted free WiFi in Newtown and other suburbs.

The council has gone to tender for a network covering the waterfront, Westpac Stadium and its concourse, Courtenay Place and Lambton Quay. Ms Wade-Brown said that would be a sensible way to start. "I wouldn't see that as being a long-term limit by any means."

- The Dominion Post

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