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Sooner or later New Zealand schools will close their doors to help slow the Covid-19 outbreak. Some schools have already had temporary closures.

In place of classroom lessons students will be asked to log-on from home and continue some of their education.

Yet at least one-in-five New Zealand school students won’t be able to join those lessons. The educational digital divide is real.

That’s the number of homes without internet access. The 2018 census found 340,000 households, 21 percent of the total did not have an internet connection.

‘Households’ may not be the exactly the same as ‘households with school age children’. It’s near enough.

150,000 students on wrong side of educational digital divide

In round numbers this means about 150,000 school students will be locked out.

Likewise many students don’t have suitable personal devices to connect. A home device may be shared by many family members.

We’ve known about the digital divide for a long time. It’s getting better and there are initiatives1 to improve matters.

The digital divide is a national disgrace. The Covid-19 virus came knocking and we have been found unprepared.

There’s more than one digital divide. Some rural areas remain unconnected. Other areas have poor network connections. Old people are often locked out too.

Fixing digital divide easier than fixing poverty

Yet the digital divide usually comes down to poverty. For families struggling to put bread on the table and a roof over heads, computers and internet access are an unaffordable luxury.

This is about politics. It should not be this way.

We’ll leave the ideological and economic arguments aside. Today the most important question is how can the unconnected take part in a society and education system that is going to be home-based in the immediate future.

There are no simple answers. And there are no quick answers.

While there are projects designed to help, they are patchy and lack funding. They don’t reach far enough into that missing 20 percent.

There isn’t enough time to ramp these programmes up to accommodate the tens of thousands of children who will soon be learning from home without 21st century teaching aids.

Government money

New Zealand’s government has committed NZ$12 billion to fighting the likely economic impact of Covid-19.

It would take NZ$100 million2 to equip each of the 150,000 school students who don’t have access.

This money would include a basic, but serviceable device and internet access for three months. If the crisis continues, subsiding internet access might cost $1 million a month. Perhaps less, 150,000 school children live in fewer than 150,000 homes.

This may not be the right answer to the problem. I’ve used it to illustrate the size of the problem and to put the cost into perspective.

There could be better ways to spend the money. I’d prefer to see more of it ploughed back in to the local economy than sent to tech giants who don’t even pay NZ taxes.

If you have a better idea, don’t keep it to yourself.

It’s never the right time

It’s probably too late to get all the ducks in a row for the coming wave of learning from home. Even if everything else was fine, and it isn’t, supply chain problems would make it hard to find 150,000 low cost devices in a hurry. There would be a huge number of last minute broadband installs.

As always we should have started sooner. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act now. By some accounts Covid-19 may come in waves. We might miss this one, yet have everything in place for the next wave.

This is not only about the educational digital divide. Having as many as possible of the most vulnerable 20 percent of the population connected to digital services from governments and private sector companies is going to improve lives. During the virus outbreak it could save lives.


  1. One of my favourites is the excellent Spark Jump programme that gives broadband access to less well off families. It uses fixed wireless broadband. It may look like this contradicts Covid–19: Fixed wireless broadband not up to the job but while fixed wireless isn’t great for binge-watching streaming TV, it is ideal for plugging coverage gaps in a hurry and more than enough for basic and educational needs.
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  2. I admit I plucked this number out of thin air. The precise size isn’t the important issue here. ↩︎

Spark and Vodafone sell fixed wireless broadband as an alternative to fibre. The service is far from rubbish. Yet it isn’t up to the demands New Zealanders will make of it while spending more time at home during the Covid–19 outbreak.

Companies are asking employees to work from home. Schools haven’t yet sent students home, but may. Because of social distancing people stay at home instead of going to the movies, the pub or other activities.

All this means people will be more reliant on broadband connections. For work-from-home employees, broadband is their livelihood. For everyone else it is a useful communications tool. It also delivers entertainment needed to stave off the boredom of stopping at home.

Insufficient data

All those examples need data. A lot of it. That’s one thing fixed wireless broadband can’t do. Most fixed wireless broadband plans come with data caps that limit a customer’s data. Which leaves people with a problem if broadband is the main Source of entertainment during the outbreak.

There are two other issues that suggest fixed wireless broadband is not up to the demands people will make of it.

First, fixed wireless is prone to congestion. A fixed wireless tower shares bandwidth between users. If there’s only one user at a given moment, connection speeds can be good. If everyone is online at once, the performance drops. It can drop below the level needed to sustain a video stream.

Swampy Covid–19

During the Covid–19 pandemic most people will spend the evening at home most of the time. The demand may swamp fixed wireless towers.

Spark slowed fixed wireless broadband sales in the run-up to Rugby World Cup for this reason. It knew customers would not have a good streaming experience.

With everyone at home, the data traffic is set to beat the highest Rugby World Cup levels.

The second part of this is that with congestion, some users may not be able to connect at times. It’s one thing to miss the last 15 minutes of a movie. It’s another thing to have your main channel to the rest of the world shut off during the Covid–19 pandemic.

Which brings me to the third problem. Clogged fixed wireless broadband networks can impact mobile wireless reception and coverage. The mobile network is our vital lifeline. Few people still have copper voice line connections. If busy fixed wireless broadband towers make it hard to make phone calls we are all in trouble. We will need phones more than ever during the outbreak.

What should the telcos do?

First, stop selling fixed wireless broadband where fibre is an option. Get customers onto fibre where possible. Where there’s a mix of fibre and non-fibre premises, leave fixed wireless for people who can’t yet get fibre.

Where fibre is not available, it makes sense to give towers a capacity upgrade. Move to 4.5G or a higher technology. And then do a better job of managing the capacity. Which, means not milking the network too hard.

Fixed wireless has a role to play in the broadband mix. Pretending it competes with fibre diminishes its overall value.

At Tech.pinions Carolina Milanesi writes about remote working during the COVID-19 epidemic:

There has been a lot of talk over the last week of how COVID-19 might be the pivotal moment for remote working to really take off. China, Silicon Valley, Japan and even Italy are all adopting remote working at various degrees to limit the spreading of the virus. There is such excitement around remote work that brands like Zoom have seen their stock value climb up.

While I really hope people are right and we will see remote working remain relevant once the threat is removed, I cannot help but be skeptical because we have been here before.

Source: Why Does it Take the Threat of a Pandemic to Support Remote Working? – Tech.pinions

Teleworking has been a perennial technology story for well over a generation. I’ve written about the idea since the late 1980s. One of the first posts on this site was Will bosses accept telecommuting?

Telework in 2000

In the run-up to the Sydney Olympics in 2000 I was working for The Australian Financial Review.

In Avoid the rush and take up teleworking I wrote about Sydney’s plan to keep workers from commenting into the city during the games. From memory there was a lot of extra traffic at the time, in part because businesses took precautions.

ORTA, the Olympic Roads and Transport Authority, is promoting teleworking as a strategy to help companies beat anticipated transport problems. Teleworking happens when people carry out work at a location other than their normal office, but remain linked to the office. The connection might be as simple as a phone or a fax, but increasingly it involves remote computers linking to an office network.

In practice, Sydney companies using teleworking as a temporary measure during the Olympics will continue functioning more or less as normal. In many cases their customer and suppliers will not notice much difference.

This was such a long time ago that businesses still took fax machines seriously.

Better networks, better tools

With fast fibre networks, mobile phones, cellular networks, better software tools and better portable hardware, teleworking is so much easier today. Millions of people do it. It’s been part of my working life for 30 years. Yet it is still not as widespread as you might expect.

In the linked story Carolina Milanesi rightly says the technology is ready. Yet much of the time business culture isn’t prepared for remote working. She mentions trust as an issue.

Remote working needs trust

Trust isn’t a problem for consultants and other professionals who are paid for their output. It is an issue for command and control style managers. Those dinosaurs will need to give up some of their control as COVID-19 spreads.

The sad thing is that even if companies switch to remote working to get through a pandemic, or epidemic, there’s a good chance they’ll change back later. For years IBM encouraged employees to remote work, only to have second thoughts and drag everyone back to the office.

Another issue mentioned in the linked post is that remote employees can feel isolated. That needs to be managed. Bosses won’t be able to do much during enforced periods of teleworking in a pandemic or other crisis. At other times there need to be strategies to make sure people feel part of a team.

Telework was a technology story when I wrote about it in 2000. It isn’t any more, today it’s a management story. Management need to think more in terms of employee output and less about time serving.

CommsDay reports on the TelSoc NBN Futures Forum held yesterday in Melbourne. The focus was on ‘Learning from International Experience’.

Former Telstra executive and telecommunications consultant Dr Jim Holmes says looking at New Zealand’s UFB project from Australia was like “watching the carnival over the hill”.

Holmes says: “NZ is declaring victory. They have produced some very good results with much less overall government pain and suffering than we’ve had”.

He added that the country provided a model example of bipartisan policy development.

This is not the only reason UFB succeeded and outperforms NBN, but it is an important one. As former Chorus CEO Kate McKenzie told me in an interview two years ago; this country is good at “New Zealand Inc.”. That’s where everyone puts aside rivalries and works together for the national good.

New Zealand’s UFB project started under a centre-right National Party government. A centre-left Labour-lead coalition government finished the job.

It was a National election promise in 2008, but Labour went in to the election with a similar plan.

Although there were political rows, the UFB was never under a political threat.

This compares with Australia where the NBN was, and to a lesser degree, still is, a political football.

Australia’s usual narrative goes on to compare its low rank in international indices.

There is no question it under performs against other countries. Although this is often overstated.

And we should remember New Zealand’s UFB had a head start. When New Zealand began its fibre to the premises roll-out, a fibre to the node network was already in place. Australia, in effect started from zero.

What should be of more concern to Australia is the sheer amount of money it wasted with NBN. New Zealand’s project came in under budget. The government money used for the fibre build was in the form of soft loans, so the net cost was negligible.

Compare that with the NBN. The total cost depends on who you talk to. The official cost A$51 billion. That’s a lot of money for a network which underperforms the carnival over over the hill.

Last week Spark announced its first half results for the six months to December 31. It is a solid report showing strong revenue growth.

Spark looks to be heading on the right track. Yet there is an interesting angle on one of the company’s strategic moves.

Nine paragraphs into the market release there is this quote from CEO Jolie Hodson:

“We made a deliberate decision to limit wireless broadband sales in the lead up to the Rugby World Cup, as a conservative measure to ensure customers had a great viewing experience while we introduced our new streaming service. Our capacity was more than sufficient, so we expect this to be a one-off and connection growth to return to trend in the second half.”

In other words Spark back-pedalled on fixed wireless broadband sales because senior management didn’t want customers to have a disappointing Rugby World Cup streaming experience.

Fixed wireless alternative

Spark pushes fixed wireless broadband to its customers as an alternative to fibre. It’s a strategic move because Spark owns its wireless network. That means the company doesn’t pay a wholesale fee to a fibre company. It keeps all the money and that makes for a higher profit margin.

Investors love that.

Downplaying fixed wireless broadband in the run up to the Rugby World Cup made sense. Although fixed wireless broadband should be able to give customers enough bandwidth to watch high definition streaming video, that’s not always the case in practice.

Unlike fibre, which has consistent and predictable performance, fixed wireless broadband performance varies from place to place. In some cases it also varies at different times of the day.

Fixed wireless broadband bandwidth is shared. So if a lot of people connect at once, speeds can drop. The Rugby World Cup saw data traffic peak across the nation. That put pressure on more marginal fixed wireless broadband connections.

Good at times

Fixed wireless broadband can be good. I’ve heard from happy fixed wireless customers who enjoy decent speeds and uninterrupted connections.

There are others who say their service does not do an adequate job with streaming video.

One common complaint is that wireless broadband speeds are not consistent. In some cases speeds vary in a regular pattern over the course of a day. Others say they get intermittent slow downs.

Conservative on fixed wireless broadband

Spark describes the decision to back-pedal on selling fixed wireless as conservative. That may be the case. But it underlines that the company is not confident about its fixed wireless performance.

There was no conservatism about selling fibre broadband to customers in the run up to the Rugby World Cup.

The message is clear: Spark knows fixed wireless broadband is a lower quality product. It knows customers get a better experience on fibre.

That said, fixed wireless broadband is often an acceptable alternative for customers living in areas that are not served by fibre. It is the main technology for Rural Broadband Initiative customers.

Again, going by user anecdotes, some people who can’t get fibre find fixed wireless performs better than their local copper broadband service. Others do better with a fast copper connection.

SamKnows

This is all anecdotal. Yet there is some evidence in the Spring 2019 Measuring Broadband New Zealand report prepared for Commerce Commission by SamKnows.

Broadband download speeds peak versus 24-7 performance

Customers with a 100 mbps fibre plan saw average download speeds of 99mbps. During peak time the dial barely moved. Samknows reported peak speeds at 98.6 mbps.

With fixed wireless broadband the average speed is 25.8 mbps. At peak times this drops to 22.7 mbps. That’s not a huge drop, but it squares with the anecdotal evidence that some customers see big drops while others see little or no drop.

Fixed wireless broadband latency

The SamKnows data also looks at latency. This is the time it takes for data to do a round trip. If latency is high, online users of applications like video conferencing and gaming can expect stuttering and dropouts. SamKnows says 30 ms is high.

SamKnows found nine in ten fibre connections had latency below 20 ms. In comparison 95 precent of fixed wireless connections had latency of over 30 ms. The average latency is around 50 ms.

Of all the latency tests performed on Fibre connections, 92% were below 20ms. At the other end of the chart, 95% of Fixed Wireless latency results were above 30ms.

Dropouts

That’s past the point where dropouts start. With everyday TV streaming, buffering can shoulder some of that load. Even so, it is a worse customer experience.

SamKnows’ summary says:

“…many fixed wireless connections will experience issues with latency-sensitive applications such as video calls and gaming.”

VDSL2+ can deliver near fibre speeds and in some cases is consistent and reliable. Before fibre came down my road I had a Spark VDSL2+ connection that delivered a consistent speed of more than 70mbps.

In three years it never wavered. You can read about my fixed wireless experience in this post. The speed was never anything like as fast as the VDSL2+ connection.

Fibre most reliable

Of course VDSL2+ is not as good as fibre. In the report summary SamKnows says:

“Households with multiple user should consider fibre, if available, for the most reliable performance.”

Spark knows all of this. The reason it pushes fixed wireless broadband is that the margins are higher. That’s because there is no wholesale charge.

For many Spark customers fixed wireless broadband is the right product. But let’s not pretend it isn’t an inferior product to fibre. Spark is willing to let its investors know that.

Disclaimer: I edit The Download magazine for Chorus as a contractor. It covers the company, the telecommunications industry and fibre broadband. These are my views and not those of Chorus.