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Broadband rollin' through the country

Broadband rollin' through the country

Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, get that broadband rollin’. The contracts have been awarded and now the rollout begins under New Zealand’s Rural Broadband Initiative. What is the view from the land? Depends on who you ask, says Anthony Doesburg.

The immediate RBI beneficiaries will be the rural young. More than 60,000 country school kids will be bringing home high-speed internet stories over the coming months as the RBI gets rolling.

Telecom network arm Chorus is on track to connect 500 country schools with 62,000 pupils to optical fibre by the end of June. Another 200 schools will be linked in over the next three years.

Even before the clock began ticking on the RBI’s first year, the Government was trumpeting that three “rural” schools had been connected, although one, Henderson Valley School, was on the outskirts of Auckland. Still, two out of three isn’t bad.

In contrast, broadband on the farm won’t be delivered quite as quickly and, when it does arrive, it won’t be as fast. However, there will be plenty of it: a map on the Ministry of Economic Development website showing pre-RBI broadband coverage in red and post-rollout coverage in blue is overwhelmingly the latter.

The Government’s commitment is to provide 100 megabit a second (Mbit/s) services to 95 percent of rural schools and a 5Mbit/s service to over 80 percent of rural households within six years.

Chorus is building the school infrastructure and installing 1000 new rural roadside cabinets from which to provide DSL services, and an upgraded and expanded Vodafone cellular network that uses the Chorus optical fibre will cover remaining farms.

None of that will be technologically life-changing for Donald Aubrey, who farms merinos on Ben McLeod Station in the Canterbury high country. Nevertheless he is an ardent support of the RBI.

“Along with many other farmers I’m keen to see telecommunications services that are much better than we have at present,” says Aubrey, the former telecommunications spokesperson for Federated Farmers.

But he acknowledges his 13,500ha property in the headwaters of the Rangitata River is a broadband “basket case”. Up until a couple of years ago he endured a dial-up service that was so slow he could read a page of a book between hitting send on an email and getting confirmation that it had squeezed down the fragile phone line.

Dial-up has since been upgraded to a satellite service, which he keeps connected with the garden hose—using it to melt the snow that collects in the dish during frequent winter dumps.

“I hold little hope of service being provided to where I am under the RBI.”

Another concern for Aubrey is the way in which the Government is tackling broadband provision. With cities getting fibre under the Ultra-Fast Broadband scheme, he worries this will further widen the gap between urban and rural New Zealand, to his mind not a good outcome.

“What I would point out is this—the RBI is a big beginning for rural New Zealand. It will be of considerable benefit and is a considerable investment, not only by the Government, but by the partners.

“But I’m not going to let go of the point that rural New Zealand should have been put first.”

Not all farmers will be denied the optical fibre of the cities. Chorus will be laying more than 3000km of new fibre under the RBI and properties that it passes may be able to buy a fibre-to-the-premise (FTTP) service.

New fibre routes will be shown on the MED website and Telecom will provide a means for people to register their interest in getting fibre to their farm.

By signing up for an FTTP service at the time the fibre is being laid, and offering to dig their own trench, farmers will qualify for a 25 percent discount off the fibre connection price. That will be available after July next year.

Vodafone, meanwhile, will build 21 of an intended 154 new cell sites in the first year of RBI deployment, and upgrade another 50. Two-thirds of the new towers will be on the North Island.

Two of the first batch, however, will be on neither the North or South islands: one is at Claris, on Great Barrier Island, and the other on Stewart Island. Where Chorus goes with its fibre, Vodafone cell sites will follow.

Vodafone RBI head Steve Rieger says the initial service might not be at the contracted 5Mbit/s peak speed, depending on whether the cell site from which it is delivered has been upgraded.

“We figure if you have dial-up and no broadband you might be quite happy with the slower speed while you wait for a nearby site to be upgraded or a new one to be built.”

Wireless broadband pricing will be “urban-like”, Rieger says. “Telecom is extending its cabinetisation programme quite deeply into rural areas so for us to compete we’re going to have to have DSL-like pricing. It won’t be mobile data—it will be a service that competes with fixed DSL.”

A side benefit of the network upgrade, however, will be improved mobile data coverage, which will trigger development of an “ecosystem” of new farm applications, Rieger reckons.

“Once you’ve got mobile footprint, then you have the ability to deliver broadband to a tractor or a farm bike. Tools like iPads suddenly become quite useful in the middle of a paddock.”

In that way technological innovation has the potential to make farmers more productive... indoors and out.

This story originally appeared in Primary magazine. Click here to subscribe.