Rural broadband extension bids: Your guide to RBI2 runners and riders

Crown Fibre Holdings’ Rural Broadband Initiative and Mobile Black Spot request for proposal closed on Monday.  That’s RBI2 to the rest of us.

At stake is $150 million of money funded by the Telecommunications Development Levy. Of that, $100 million is to finance high-speed broadband. It needs to reach to the last 15 percent of the nation not covered by UltraFast Broadband. The $50 million is to improve cellular coverage in areas not yet served.

The process is confidential. So far four bidders have gone public revealing some aspects of their plans. There could be others.

Chorus: extend and improve existing land-based networks

Chorus aims to extend the reach of its fixed-line network beyond urban New Zealand. The company says it is willing to work with others. It did that when it joined Vodafone to build the original Rural Broadband Initiative.

Extending can mean new fibre and maximising the use of existing fibre in rural areas. It can also mean upgrading copper.

Chorus says it wants to improve fixed-line network performance in rural areas. This could mean upgrading copper to VDSL. Newer copper technologies are also possible.

It says its fixed-line networks are not prone to congestion at busy times. They don’t need to use data caps to manage demand. That’s a dig at fixed wireless broadband on cellular network.

Central to the Chorus proposal is its networks will be open access. Any retail service provider can use them.

Choose wireless say Vodafone, Spark and 2degrees

Vodafone, Spark and 2degrees have combined to offer a cellular-based approach. Their proposal includes up to 520 new cell sites.

They say the extra towers will extend the reach of today’s cellular coverage by 25 percent. Not only will the three companies share rural towers, they will also share antennae and spectrum.

That’s a huge step for Vodafone and Spark but it makes economic sense. It will reduce capital expenditure, stretching the money further. And it will keep running costs down.

Updated: While the companies’ press didn’t say the RBI2 towers will be open access, Spark says they will be. This echoes the approach in the first stage of the RBI where Vodafone built towers, but other carriers can use them.

Wispa makes case for small, local service providers

Wispa, a coalition of small rural wireless ISPs aims to win up to $2 million from the fund for each of its 30 members. Spokesman Chris O’Connell says Wispa member already serve 40,000 customers. They deploy wireless broadband in areas bigger companies often consider uneconomic.

In some cases Wispa members work with the big telcos reselling their services.

Wispa members are experts at rural broadband. They know the terrain and they are close to their customers. Most know how to deliver great broadband on the smell of an oily rag. Many will be able to deliver CFH the greatest bang for the buck. On the downside, it can be harder managing 30 small players than cutting a deal with the big operators.

Alongside Wispa, Aird Towers aims to build what it describes as “operator agnostic” towers. In other words an open access alternative to the carriers. The Aird plan would allow the main mobile carriers and small wireless ISPs to share access.

Mix and match

The mobile carriers’ joint bid looks like an ideal way of fixing the mobile black spot problem. Otherwise, when it comes to delivering the best possible broadband to rural users at the least cost; it’s not a case of either or. All the proposals have some merit.

Tuanz CEO Craig Young says users would probably be best served by a combination of the bids. And that’s the most likely outcome.

Most bidders accept there is overlap and room for co-operation1. Vodafone CEO Russell Stanners told Stuff: “..it makes sense for the Government to spend all the $150 million it has earmarked for improving rural telecommunications on new cellphone towers. With none going on improvements to the fixed-line network.”

Even then there is a case for Chorus to provide fibre to the new cellular towers. There is also a case for any towers to be open access so that Wispa members can use the infrastructure.

After all, it seems wrong to deny rural users the benefit of full broadband competition.

RBI2 reaches the last 15 percent

When work finishes on the second stage of UFB, 85 percent of New Zealanders will have fibre access. The RBI2 plan is to boost broadband for the last 15 percent. In some ways they need it more than city folk. And the rural economy makes up the bulk of exports.

Fibre is the best way to connect to the internet. In an ideal world, everyone would get it.

It makes economic sense to connect the first 85 percent of the nation to fibre. Once you get beyond that segment of the population, connection costs rise fast. Each home in the next five percent costs, say, twice a much on average to connect as the bulk of homes. With the last 10 percent, the per house costs rise further.

So away from any low-hanging fruit, wireless is likely to be their best option. The most cost-effective way of getting broadband to the wop-wops is a mix of fibre and wireless.

Crown Fibre Holdings says it is now assessing the RBI2 proposals before moving to negotiations with shortlisted suppliers. It hopes to announce contracts by July.

For another take on the rural broadband extension bids listen to InternetNZ deputy CEO Andrew Cushen talk to Kathryn Ryan on RNZ Nine-to-Noon.

Bill Bennett is editing The Download magazine for Chorus and has previously worked for Spark NZ.


  1. Originally the story said the mobile carriers didn’t talk about co-operating. Spark clarifies this saying: “We haven’t said we won’t co-operate.  All we’ve said is no more $ should be spent on copper”. ↩︎