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Last week the government earmarked $15 million to improve rural broadband. If that doesn’t sound like much, you are not alone. Both Tuanz and Federated Farmers have complained that it is not enough.

A media statement from Communications Minister Kris Faafoi and Infrastructure Minister Shane Jones says the money will pay to upgrade rural mobile towers and the wireless backhaul connecting towers to the networks. There will also be money for households to install external antennae to boost reception.

In other words, this is less about extending the rural broadband footprint and more about giving people who already have a connection a better experience.

Faafoi says: “The government’s aim is to provide access to around 99.8 percent of New Zealanders. However, while that work continues some households in isolated regions require reliable access to broadband services in light of Covid-19 – particularly households with school-age children who need internet access for remote learning. The work brings forward capacity upgrades to meet increased demand for the internet where the urgency is most acute.”

Adding capacity

Many rural broadband towers are either at capacity or are nearly there. Rural fixed wireless performance is variable. In some cases fixed wireless broadband is not up to the job of delivering much needed connectivity.

Jones says upgrading the infrastructure this way is likely to be the fastest way to provide broadband to rural households that are in the coverage area but where capacity is stretched.

He says: “The government, through Crown Infrastructure Partners, is prioritising the upgrade of mobile towers in rural areas where there are high numbers of school-age children living in households that cannot access the internet.

“This will provide school-age students in remote areas with access to the digital connectivity programme that the government recently rolled out to support distance learning. It means that students, particularly those in low-income rural households, can continue with their schooling in exactly the same way as those in urban areas”.

A drop in the bucket

Tuanz CEO Craig Young says the money is “a drop in the bucket”. He says there are still gaps between the rural broadband experience and that seen by people in urban areas. He says things are worse in a lockdown when children are staying at home.”

Young wants the government to commit to a programme ensuring all rural users have the same experience as urban.

He says: “In particular this means further support to the local wireless ISPs to continue to upgrade their networks, and to commit to upgrading the previous and current RBI mobile footprint to the latest technology as quickly as possible.”

Farmers Weekly reports Federated Farmers vice-president Andrew Hoggard says big rural areas still have slow or no internet access. He told the paper: “The vast majority of New Zealanders living in towns and cities have absolutely no idea how bad internet access still is in some parts of the country.”

“If you are looking for a shovel-ready project this would be a good one. The shovels are already in the ground.

Rural broadband is hard

There are no easy answers to improving rural broadband. Wisps do a great job in many areas. They understand local needs and conditions which makes it easier to deliver the right services. Part of the problem is that the cost of providing a connection goes up the further you are from other people. If the bigger mobile carriers thought it would be profitable, they’d extend their networks to reach further into the bush without looking for government subsidies or funding.

There are two ways New Zealand can address these issues. One is to accept the higher cost of rural communications. We might expect people living in the bush to pay extra to cover those costs. After all this is what happens with other services such as rural post and parcel deliveries. It costs more to deliver a parcel delivered to a rural address. The cost is not prohibitive.

Alternatively we bite the bullet and pay the extra cost of getting first rate broadband to everyone. Or at least almost everyone. This is how it worked 100 years or so ago when copper telephone networks extended to the furthest reaches.

Either way, it’s a matter of money.

14 thoughts on “Rural broadband funding fails to excite farmers, users

  1. Yes your right but our farmers’ run businesses’ and expectations for a longtime has been for better connectivity with better digital infrastructure I know the Provincial Growth Fund has or is being repurposed this should be contemplated

  2. More and more evidence that privatisation failed and that we’re having to roll out the subsidies to the rural sector anyway. And, yes, I specifically said the rural sector. Any area that has a low density of people is going to need to be subsidised as they simply don’t have the number of people to cover the costs through economies of scale.

    Then there’s the question of the privatised free-market that they’ve been pushing since forever. You know, where everyone is supposed to pay for what they want and not get subsidies?

    And, no, they don’t get to claim that they’re the backbone of the economy either. It was before WWII when the agricultural sector employed 50% or more of the economy. These days its down to 7% and dropping and will continue to drop as productivity increases and there’s no more land for farming.

    Yes, yes. Everyone needs to eat but they’re not actually feeding us all either are they? As 25% of our children go hungry everyday.

    So, yes, there’s a digital divide for the rural sector – exactly as they wanted, demanded and got. They’re just crying because it didn’t go the way that they thought it would.

  3. I get alarmed when a I see a one-size-fits-all approach to rural broadband.

    Instead of saying ‘we’ll roll out lots of new rural wireless,’ the government needs to check each household/farm’s current speed/issues/affordability, and then create a plan to come up with the best solution for a particular locality. I live in hill country which means any wireless solution has to be small and very local.

    We have an excellent private rural wireless company that covers our district, but it is very expensive and severely data capped. Chorus still provide copper wire ADSL, which has just been upgraded, and that gets round a further problem with rural wireless coverage. Unless you have a good UPS, the old copper landline is a lifesaver in the frequent power cuts we get, sometimes lasting all day.

    We’re I live, the only way to get mobile coverage is to climb up a 300m hill. Vodafone towers are supposed to provide for our area, but in practice they don’t. To check mobile messages, or to do anything with two-factor authentication, I have to drive about 10km to where there’s a spot with coverage.

    • This squares with my understanding.

      I’d like to see more government emphasis on those small local service providers and wisps who are tuned into local conditions and needs.

      Likewise, there is scope to push fibre further into the bush. If there’s a copper line to a property or a mains power line, then running fibre is theoretically possible.

      At this point it comes down to cost. It doesn’t make economic sense to spend $100k installing fibre for an $80 a month subscription, but wisps can often find creative ways around these problems.

  4. We have RBI 4G wireless broadband, not in the bush but adjoining the UFB zone at the waterfront lifestyle blocks near Tauranga. Speed is all over the place, sometimes stops but mostly is 15-20 Mbps during lockdown which is ok for now, at least we can video call the family which did not work with our previous ADSL. The digital divide is still alive though as new connections are refused and we have a 120 GB data cap which is not enough (but lifted for the moment). The price we have to pay seems to be fixed across all providers unlike urban 4G which is much cheaper and has bigger data caps.

  5. If New Zealand broadband infrastructure spend was allocated based on how many export dollars a household / business contributing to earning the country…

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