A gap in digital media use?

Last updated 10:06 07/08/2013

Today, I have a question for you. Is the lag between New Zealand and the rest of the world in digital media use closing up, or expanding?

A recent development in our Oakland palace got me thinking about this.

TVLP and I have a new arrival in our household. It's not a baby, but it has bought some amount of joy to us. It's a small, black Roku box that we bought the other week, along with a new TV. It has allowed us, like Gods, to graduate from watching our programmes and movies in bed on a laptop, to the couch, like real grown-ups. 

This Roku box (a satisfyingly futuristic name) connects with our wireless Internet to allow us to stream programmes through our TV, courtesy of our Netflix and Hulu Plus memberships. It is exactly like Apple TV only with access to more content. I can get sports packages, we can order in movies like we're living in a hotel, courtesy of Amazon Instant Video or Blockbuster. We can't watch HBO on it without cable installed, but it opens up about 90 per cent of the usability of cable (endless amounts of crappy things to watch right at your fingertips!) with a one-off purchase and the Internet we already have.

I was feeling smug, emailing an old friend in Wellington about it. I'm enthusiastic about this little box, to say the least.

"I look forward to using that when it comes to New Zealand in 15 years' time," my friend replied. 

But is he right? Or is this an old assumption?

When I first moved to America, I was a little hard on New Zealand as being cast in the darker ages by its comparative dearth of affordable bandwidth.

Data in America is cheap and abundant. For the past three years I've had unlimited cellphone data for $30 a month. Similarly, we've paid around $30 each month for as much Internet as we can deal with.

NetflixAs soon as I moved here, a smartphone was affordable and accessible. I could access the Internet anywhere and everywhere. Through Spotify, for a small fee, I could stream anywhere I pleased and legally play almost all the music I could ever want to hear. This slowly negated the need for an iPod. Netflix and Hulu allowed LP and me to tear through seasons of TV and watch movies, all online.

If I wasn't such a tactile sucker for the newspaper and hard-copy books, I could have quickly dispensed with all physical media and gone completely electronic without any need to worry about whether we'd hit our monthly download cap.  

I interviewed one of the first Google employees, originally from Hamilton, back in the day. I asked him whether such a thing could ever rise up out of New Zealand. He replied succinctly that a network administrator would probably have shut Google down if it had tried.

iphoneWhich summarises my own feelings on a much larger scale. At a personal level, in 2010 at least, our access to digital media forms in Wellington was throttled severely by the cost of broadband. LP and I seemed to pay a fortune for just a little Internet and we'd receive dreaded letters from TelstraClear each month informing us that we'd gone over our lot and would now be charged a million dollars a megabyte until the end of the month.

Watching from a distance, I wonder if the gulf has closed.

There's QuickFlix now, which allows New Zealanders to stream films online. Orcon and Slingshot, apparently, zero-rate data used while playing movies on this service, which is promising. Spotify has been launched at home, so you too can know the joy of having everything at your fingertips and not know what on earth to listen to. Stuff, NZ Herald, Radio NZ, TV3 and TVNZ all have smartphone apps now.

It's still insanely expensive to buy an iPhone in New Zealand, it seems, but the gaps in data prices aren't so pronounced anymore. Home bandwidth isn't so ridiculous either. It seemed while browsing that 30GB or 40GB costs now what 10GB did three years ago.

Which all makes sense. Three years is a long time... and a millennium when it comes to technology.

But then, I wonder, Spotify and QuickFlix are still data-intensive and many more ISPs don't zero-rate that use than do. Broadband is better priced, but caps still do exist.

How many people at home are really using these services?

Have lower data prices and more services bridged the gaps in digital media use between New Zealand and America?

Is it real progress, or just the outline of change?

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