Vodafone’s rural broadband unit Farmside says a wave of new customers joined immediately after June 1. That’s Moving Day in the dairy farming calendar. The day when farmers traditionally move equipment, stock and people to new farms.
Farmside general manager Jason Sharp says the business has now passed 15,000 customers. Most connect via RBI fixed wireless but many Farmside customers have fibre or satellite connections.
Sharp says Farmside saw a 74 percent increase in the amount of data used by RBI customers and a 35 percent increase in satellite data during Covid-19 lockdown levels 3 and 4.
Farmside says it was able to continue connecting remote customers during lockdown and prioritised work for those who needed a physical installation.
Pandemic changed rural broadband
Earlier this year Sharp noted that pandemic had a huge effect on rural broadband.
He says: “As I reflect back on what was an incredibly busy period, it was also a turning point for rural communities forced to go online in ways never experienced before. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to achieve. I also see lots of opportunity for the future of the internet in the country.
“In the past month we’ve seen stock auctions go online, our major agriculture exhibition become the Fieldays Online event and online discussion groups replace face to face gatherings. This comes with a broader reach in terms of markets – but also relies on good internet connectivity so that parts of the country aren’t left behind.”
Rural broadband challenge
That’s the challenge facing rural internet providers like Farmside. Despite continued government investment in infrastructure, the fixed wireless broadband technology used for most rural connections was never intended for the kind of intense use that has become an everyday fact of life.
When RBI was first planned about 12 years ago, the idea of streaming Netflix or interactive games to farms and other remote locations wasn’t in anyone’s sights. And that’s before we get to streaming the Rugby World Cup.
At the time fixed wireless broadband looked more than adequate for most rural business applications. Since then the amount of data used to run a farm has exploded.
Sharp says: “… satellite connections have become even more important for those who aren’t within the 35km range of rural wireless broadband – or because the landscape renders line of sight to a cell tower impossible.”
New satellite options are coming online which should improve matters for the most remote users. And there are potential upgrades for fixed wireless that can improve data speeds and allow for larger data caps. Yet the best way to level the playing field for rural broadband customers would be to extend the reach of fibre networks further into the bush.